County Assessor Paul Petersen suspended following arrest in adoption fraud ring

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The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors has just voted unanimously to suspend County Assessor Paul Petersen for 120 days without pay.

The decision comes following Petersen’s arrest earlier this month for allegedly running an international adoption ring.

Arizona’s Family on Monday obtained the results of an audit of Petersen’s county office that was completed by the Maricopa County Internal Audit Department.

In a letter sent to the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, the department noted approximately 1,500 computer documents that were dated between Jan. 25, 2006, when Petersen first became a county employee, and Oct. 1, 2019. The auditor said about 14% of those files related to county business.

“The remainder related primarily to his law practice, mostly for adoption and bankruptcy activities,” reads the letter.

The Internal Audit Department also looked at files dated after Petersen became the county assessor in 2013. 

There were about 550 of them, but just 5% were related to county business, according to the department’s findings.

Despite his arrest, Petersen had remained in his paid position as county assessor, and until now, has continued to receive a paycheck while in federal custody. He has been making $77,000 a year.

Petersen had refused to resign from his position.

At the County level, there’s not much that can be done to remove somebody from office. But Arizona law does allow him to be suspended for “neglect of duty.” 

The board announced last week that it would be holding a vote about whether to suspend Petersen.

“The Board of Supervisors acted today in a way that was expected and enabled them once again to stay relevant and in the news. There is no basis to suspend my client,” said Kurt M. Altman, Petersen’s lawyer. “The allegations against him have nothing to do with the operation of the County Assessor’s Office which has not missed a beat during this trying time for Paul and his family. As stated before, the reasons being used by the BOS to suspend Mr. Petersen are wholly insufficient under the statute, which itself is very likely in violation of Arizona’s Constitution. Speaking of the Constitution … to those who want to convict Mr. Petersen in the media, he is innocent until proven guilty by actual evidence. Actual evidence is presented in court. To date there has been no evidence presented against him.”

Petersen is accused of running a human smuggling scheme involving pregnant women from the Marshall Islands who were brought to the U.S. to give birth for adoptions.

The women were crammed into homes owned or rented by Petersen, sometimes with little to no prenatal care, the authorities have said in court documents.

The paperwork indicates Petersen has been involved in adoptions with Marshallese babies as far back as 2005. 

Petersen faces charges in Arizona, Arkansas and Utah including human smuggling, sale of a child, fraud, forgery and conspiracy to commit money laundering.

Petersen was appointed to the position of county assessor in 2013, won a special election in 2014, and was re-elected in 2016. The county assessor is in charge of property valuation.

-Kurt M. Altman, PLC, is a former state and federal prosecutor and Alison Holcomb is director of the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice.