PHOENIX — The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to uphold County Assessor Paul Petersen's 120-day suspension and to start the removal process for Petersen, asking the County Attorney to investigate "willful misconduct" while Petersen served as the County Assessor.
The allegations and suspension all stem from Petersen's role in orchestrating an international human smuggling operation. Petersen was arrested on October 8, 2019, for allegedly "running an illegal adoption scheme where he recruited, transported, and offered payment to pregnant Marshallese women to give their babies up for adoption in the United States." He is facing state and federal charges in Arizona, Utah, and Arkansas.
"ALL YOU GIRLS WORK FOR ME..."
The Board made the decision to uphold Petersen's suspension after an independent investigation, paid for by the county, uncovered new evidence on Peterson's laptop.
Documents on the Petersen's county-issued laptop included screenshots of text message conversations, revealing Petersen threatening and exploiting Marshallese mothers who were reconsidering giving their babies up for adoption.
"All you girls work for me, not the other way around," Petersen reportedly told one woman.
In another message, Petersen allegedly threatened to remove his name from an apartment he owned, which would evict the vulnerable mother and leave her homeless in a foreign country.
Petersen also reportedly told a father who would not sign adoption papers that he could separate parental rights.
"This is human trafficking," said Steve Gallardo, a supervisor representing District 5. "You cannot describe it anymore other than human trafficking, and he did it while he was on the clock here at Maricopa County."
"It was very upsetting that someone would use a position of power to do these sorts of things to anyone, but especially women who have been brought here from another country," said the Chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, Bill Gates.
OVER 2,000 DOCUMENTS RECOVERED
The investigation revealed Petersen tried to wipe the hard drive on the laptop on two separate occasions after his arrest, as well as clear his search history and uninstall software. Despite his multiple efforts, investigators recovered more than 2,000 documents on the county-issued laptop pertaining to his personal adoption business.
Documents revealed Petersen wrote a letter to the Indiana Department of Health Services regarding a pregnant mother's qualification for state Medicaid, bank transfers to his co-defendant, Lynnwood Jennet, and text messages related to his private adoption business.
Of the 2,334 documents discovered on Petersen's computer, the following related to his private law practice and adoption business:
847 documents including medical records
429 documents including an adoption services agreement
216 law office bank records
72 adoption file documents
71 petitions for adoption
71 petitions for adoption
Petersen's county computer, which was purchased with taxpayer money, was seized by the Attorney General with a search warrant on December 3.
"Maricopa County is an institution of public trust. Mr. Petersen used it as his own personal currency," said Supervisor Steve Chucri.
Forensic analysis revealed someone intentionally tried to reset the computer on October 30, just one day after Petersen was released from custody in Arkansas, where he also faces charges stemming from his law firm's adoption practice, and again on November 12. As a result, “only a small amount of data was available for analysis,” Chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, Gates, said.
"It’s very likely that there were additional documents that were unable to access because of the two wipes that occurred," Gates continued.
Forensic analysis revealed Bing searches conducted on Petersen's laptop on November 25:
"uninstall Microsoft Word
"uninstall Microsoft edge"
PROOF OF OTHER POSSIBLE CRIMES?
Gates said findings on the laptop are in violation of four separate Arizona laws.
"The evidence that data was intentionally removed from Mr. Petersen’s county issued laptop may form a separate basis for finding he committed destruction of or tampering with public records," Gates said at a Board of Supervisors meeting on Friday.
The possible charges could include criminal damage, tampering with evidence and destruction of public records. The Arizona Attorney General's Office has seized Petersen's laptop, but did not respond when ABC15 asked if they are investigating and pursuing additional criminal charges.
The supervisors voted unanimously on October 29 to place Petersen on an unpaid suspension for 120 days, concluding that he neglected his office and used his county computer to do work for his adoption business.
Roughly 60 days into the suspension, the board doubled down and even took the step towards removal, despite Petersen's threat to sue.
"We feel very confident about this decision, we believe that we have this authority under Arizona statutes. And we believe if he does appeal this he will be unsuccessful," said Chairman Gates, who reiterated that the board does not have the ability to remove Petersen.
The entire process has been expensive for taxpayers, with costly lawyers who will likely be retained for months to come. The board though, puts the blame squarely on Petersen.
"If he would’ve resigned, we could have avoided all of this. This is his decision," said Gates.
In 60 days, on February 26, if the Maricopa County Attorney has not taken any action it is possible that Petersen could return to his position as acting County Assessor.
Petersen has pleaded not guilty in Arizona, Arkansas and Utah to charges stemming from his law firm's adoption practice.
Chairman Bill Gates just went on a scathing 8-minute critique of Paul Petersen and his conduct as Assessor.— Zach Crenshaw (@ZachCrenshaw) December 27, 2019
Said he believes a supplemental report will shot there was “willful misconduct” & says someone attempted to wipe the laptop clean - twice. They still found messages/docs. pic.twitter.com/nJdKdBASI8