ARIZONA NEWS

Assessor Paul Petersen pleads not guilty to 32 charges in Arizona

Nov 5, 2019, 1:30 PM
Paul Petersen (Maricopa County Sheriff's Office Photo)...
Paul Petersen (Maricopa County Sheriff's Office Photo)
(Maricopa County Sheriff's Office Photo)

PHOENIX – The Maricopa County elected official accused of running a multistate human smuggling scheme involving pregnant women pleaded not guilty to 32 charges in an Arizona court Tuesday.

Afterward, an attorney for Assessor Paul Petersen said his client was prepared to legally challenge the county’s recent decision to suspend him.

Attorney Kory Langhofer said Petersen will try to amicably resolve the dispute, but if that fails, he’ll file a lawsuit contesting the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors’ decision to impose a 120-day unpaid suspension.

Langhofer said the Oct. 28 decision wasn’t constitutionally sound, explaining his client and the board are equals who can’t oust each other.

“They have decided to throw him out regardless of what the constitution says, and so I suspect this is going to end up in court,” Langhofer said shortly after Petersen was arraigned in Phoenix.

Outside of court, Petersen didn’t talk to news reporters after entering his plea.

The Arizona charges are for one count each of conspiracy, forgery, theft and fraudulent schemes and artifices, and 28 counts of fraudulent schemes and practices.

They include claims that Petersen falsely claimed the Marshall Islands women were Arizona residents to get them health care coverage, bilking the state’s Medicaid system out of more than $800,000.

His next Arizona court date, a pretrial conference, was set for Dec. 19 in Maricopa County Superior Court.

Last week, Petersen pleaded not guilty to 19 federal charges related to the case in Arkansas.

After entering his plea in Fayetteville, Arkansas, he was released from federal custody on $100,000 bond and ordered to wear an ankle monitor.

His Arkansas trial was set for Dec. 9.

He also faces 11 charges in Utah, where his initial appearance was set for Nov. 15.

Petersen was arrested Oct. 8 near Gila Bend after being indicted for allegedly recruiting, transporting and offering to pay dozens of pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to adopt out their babies in the United States.

The women were crammed into homes owned or rented by Petersen, sometimes with little to no prenatal care, court documents say.

He charged families $25,000 to $40,000 per adoption, prosecutors said.

The case spans three years and involves some 75 adoptions, authorities said.

Petersen’s attorney has said prosecutors have miscast his client as a human smuggler.

Despite calls from high-ranking state and county officials, Petersen has refused to resign.

County auditors said last week they found hundreds documents related to Petersen’s adoption business on his county-issued computer, a fact cited by the board in its decision to suspend him. The board also cited his extended absence from the office while incarcerated.

“The board believes they are on solid legal footing,” Fields Moseley, a spokesman for county government, said in responding to the claim that Petersen’s suspension wasn’t legitimate.

The board lacks the power to permanently remove Petersen from his office, which determines the value of properties for tax purposes in Phoenix and its suburbs.

Bill Wiley was appointed acting administrator of the assessor’s office during Petersen’s suspension.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Assessor Paul Petersen pleads not guilty to 32 charges in Arizona