Maricopa County board hears suspended assessor’s appeal
PHOENIX — An Arizona elected official accused of paying women from a poor Pacific island nation to give their babies for adoption in the United States made an appeal Wednesday to overturn his suspension.
Lawyers for Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen told the county Board of Supervisors that he did not neglect his duties in office despite spending three weeks in jail before he was able to post bond.
The board will issue a ruling on the appeal at a later date.
Petersen didn’t attend the hearing. His attorney, Kory Langhofer, said Petersen is saving his testimony for criminal proceedings in the case.
The supervisors voted unanimously in October to place Petersen on an unpaid suspension for 120 days, ruling he’d neglected his office and used his county computer to do work for his adoption business.
Petersen has pleaded not guilty in Arizona and Arkansas to charges stemming from his law firm’s adoption practice. He also faces related charges in Utah but has not yet entered a plea there.
Prosecutors say he illegally paid women from the Marshall Islands up to $40,000 to come to have their babies in the United States and give them up for adoption. Charges include human smuggling, sale of a child and fraud.
Langhofer said the supervisors can’t point to any duty that his client was unable to perform while behind bars. He also argued that the law allowing the supervisors to suspend the elected assessor is unconstitutional.
Lawyers for Petersen and the Board of Supervisors were in negotiations on a settlement that would involve the suspended assessor resigning, but did not come to agreement.
The county offered to continue Petersen’s benefits for a period of time, but refused Petersen’s request for a portion of his $77,000 annual salary.
Petersen, a Republican, oversees an office that determines the value of residential and business properties for tax purposes.
Lawyers hired by the county’s top prosecutor to probe Petersen’s conduct in office said they found no indication he neglected a specific duty of office required by law. But the lawyers, Lee Stein and Anne Chapman, said the supervisors may determine that Petersen had a duty to follow county policies prohibiting the use of his computer for outside business and requiring him to cooperate with investigators.
“Our investigation established that Mr. Petersen devoted substantial time during working hours to his adoption law practice, even after serious questions about its legality had been raised over the years,” the lawyers wrote in a preliminary report last week. “Moreover, the investigation confirmed that he created and saved in excess of 800 documents relating to his private law practice on County computers, while in his County office, during work hours.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Petersen already had pleaded guilty to charges in Utah.