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Facing legal battles, Paul Petersen resigns as Maricopa County assessor

PHOENIX – Three months after his arrest on human trafficking charges related to an alleged multistate adoption scheme, Paul D. Petersen resigned as Maricopa County’s assessor Tuesday.

Until now, Petersen had defied calls from state and county leaders, including Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, to step down from his $77,000-a-year elected position in the wake of his Oct. 8 arrest on 62 charges in Arizona, Arkansas and Utah.

In a statement released by his attorneys, Petersen proclaimed his innocence and said he never neglected his duties. The Republican said county officials and news organizations presumed he was guilty.

“My focus now turns to defending the allegations against me,” Petersen said.

Now that the battle over his job has ended, Petersen will have to fight to stay out of prison.

Petersen is accused of illegally recruiting, transporting and paying dozens of pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to adopt out their babies in the United States.

Citizens of the Pacific islands, where Petersen completed a proselytizing mission as a member of The Church of Jesus Christs of Latter-day Saints, have been prohibited from traveling to the U.S. for adoption purposes since 2003.

Petersen is facing 32 fraud charges for allegedly claiming the Marshallese women were Arizona residents to get them health care coverage, bilking the state’s Medicaid system out of more than $800,000. He pleaded not guilty to the Arizona charges Nov. 5.

He’s since pleaded not guilty to 19 federal charges in Arkansas related to the alleged baby-selling scheme. He also faces 11 related charges in Utah but has not yet entered a plea there.

The case spans three years and involves some 75 adoptions in which Petersen allegedly paid Marshallese women to have their babies in the United States and give them up for adoption.

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

Prosecutors could have the assistance of Petersen’s alleged partner in crime in making their case against him. On Dec. 19, Lynwood Jennet reached a plea deal in Arizona on charges of conspiracy to commit fraudulent schemes and artifices, two counts of theft and failure to file a tax return.

As part of the deal, she agreed to cooperate with the state’s prosecution and testify against Petersen if necessary, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich told KTAR News 92.3 FM.

In her plea agreement, Jennet, who is Marshallese, admitted to coordinating aspects of the adoptions and helping the mothers fraudulently apply for Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System benefits, Brnovich said.

On Oct. 28, the Board of Supervisors suspended Petersen for 120 days, citing neglect of duty. Petersen filed an appeal, which was heard Dec. 11.

The board upheld the suspension Dec. 27 and also voted to seek Petersen’s removal from office.

During that meeting, Chairman Bill Gates said the board’s investigation into whether Petersen had been fulfilling his duties supported a finding of neglect and willful misconduct.

Investigators were able to recover more than 2,000 documents on Petersen’s county-issued laptop related to his private adoption practice despite two attempts to wipe the computer clean, Gates said. They also found evidence of web searches on how to delete data from a computer.

The documents included screenshots of messages in which Petersen threatened to have women evicted for changing their minds about giving up their babies, Gates said.

There were also messages threatening a father with losing his parental rights if he didn’t sign adoption papers and another saying “all you girls work for me, not the other way around,” Gates said.

His attorneys have said Petersen ran a legal adoption practice and has been vilified before his side of the story comes out. They had argued that the county governing board had no basis for suspending him.

Before the appeal was heard, Kory Langhofer, an attorney for Petersen, said there had been negotiations with the county about a resignation deal.

“He’s willing to resign, but so far we’ve got no serious offers from the county,” Langhofer told KTAR News on Dec. 10.

Langhofer said the Board of Supervisors rejected Petersen’s offer to step down in exchange for nine months of salary (about $57,750) plus benefits.

John Doran, attorney for the Board of Supervisors, told KTAR News at the time the county didn’t include any of Petersen’s salary in its settlement offers.

Petersen was first appointed to head up the assessor’s office in 2013. In the 2016 election, voters handed him a full four-year term that runs until the end of 2020.

After Petersen was suspended, the county hired Bill Wiley as acting administrator for the office, which determines the value of Phoenix-area properties for tax purposes.

Wiley’s experience with the county includes stints as Flood Control District chief engineer and Air Quality Department director.

He is being paid more than $72 per hour in the temporary role, about double Petersen’s assessor salary.

The Board of Supervisors said Wiley will continue to lead the office until it appoints a new assessor.

Petersen’s full resignation letter is as follows:

I am an innocent man, but the media and the Board of Supervisors have presumed my guilt rather than my innocence in this matter. The Board of Supervisors even disregarded their own report concluding that my office discharged all its statutory duties, and the legal standard governing suspensions of duly elected constitutional officers, because they believed no one would look too closely in light of the sensationalized and one-sided media environment. Several of the Supervisors voted to suspend me for being involuntarily absent from the office for less time than they were voluntarily absent; they were a jury of hypocrites.

I fought the Board’s initial decision because it felt wrong to capitulate to a suspension based on anything other than my performance in office—and because, as the Board’s own report concluded, I never neglected my duties as the Maricopa County Assessor. Anyone can second guess the hours I spent at the downtown office, or whether the position should be appointed rather than elected, but I performed my statutory duties with honesty and the support and loyalty of an entire office.

Two regrets as I leave public life are that I did not have an opportunity to personally thank the professional team with whom I served for over 14 years in the Assessor’s office, and that this spectacle has distracted them from their dedication to fairly and equitably valuing all property in Maricopa County.

Today, I reluctantly resign as Maricopa County Assessor. My focus now turns to defending the allegations against me. Those allegations will ultimately be resolved in a courtroom, where rules and the Constitution still matter.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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