The governing board in Arizona's most populous county took the first step Wednesday toward suspending an elected official accused of running a human smuggling scheme involving pregnant women from the Marshall Islands who were brought to the U.S. to give birth.
The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to notify Assessor Paul Petersen that it plans a public meeting next week to consider suspending him without pay for up to 120 days.
Board members lack the authority to permanently remove Petersen from his office that that determines the value of properties for tax purposes in Phoenix and its suburbs.
He was arrested last week and is in federal custody and has refused to resign -- but Arizona law allows him to be suspended for "neglect of duty" if he's first given at least five days' notice.
The board on Wednesday said Petersen is neglecting his duties because he's not physically present in the office and has extremely limited access while in detention to telephone and email.
The board also said that an audit of his office that began after his arrest found files from his adoption business on his county computer.
County employees are prohibited from using their computers for personal business "and we would hope that our countywide elected officials would live up to that," said Bill Gates, the Board of Supervisors' Republican chairman.
Petersen illegally paid women from the Marshall Islands to have their babies in the United States and give them up for adoption, authorities have said.
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.
He faces charges in Arizona, Arkansas and Utah including human smuggling, sale of a child, fraud, forgery and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Petersen is a Republican elected most recently in 2016.
His lawyer, Kurt Altman, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the board's action. His former lawyer, Matt Long, has denied that Petersen's adoption business broke the law.
Petersen completed a mission in the Marshall Islands, a collection of atolls and islands in the eastern Pacific, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He later worked in the islands and the U.S. on behalf of an international adoption agency before going to law school and becoming an adoption attorney.
Prosecutors say he charged families $25,000 to $40,000 per adoption. The charges span three years and involve some 75 adoptions. There are about 30 pending adoptions in three states, authorities said in court documents.
Petersen's attorney released the following statement on his behalf Wednesday:
"Certainly we are disappointed in the Board’s decision today to use a little known statute in an attempt to suspend Paul Petersen from his elected position as Maricopa County Assessor. Paul is a constitutionally elected officer who does not answer to the Board of Supervisors. The information presented by the Board in their notice does not meet the threshold to allow them to issue a suspension. Moreover, the statute itself is constitutionally suspect and ripe for challenge. More disappointing yet is the continued effort to tarnish Mr. Petersen and trample his rights under the Constitution. I reiterate, the charges agains Paul are simply allegations. In our system, Paul is as innocent today as he was before the formal accusations. It’s unfortunate the Board continues to forget that."