The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors is looking into whether it can remove county Assessor Paul Petersen from office after he was indicted last week in an alleged adoption scheme involving women from the Marshall Islands.
In a closed-door executive session that lasted for more than an hour on Monday, the supervisors discussed legal issues with Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel and Tom Liddy, who heads up the office’s civil division. Supervisor Bill Gates, the board’s chairman, said the supervisors are still seeking additional information from the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office on whether it has the power to remove Petersen.
“We’re receiving legal advice on that, and we have additional questions as it relates to that. And we look forward to hearing back from the county attorney soon,” Gates said.
Gates said the board has also instructed the county’s auditor, Mike McGee, to determine whether Petersen used any public resources as part of his adoption business or the dozens of crimes with which he’s been charged. Fields Mosley, a spokesman for the county, said the board has no indication that county funds were used or mingled with Petersen’s business, but that it ordered the audit out of an abundance of caution.
Petersen has been charged in Arizona and Utah, as well as by federal prosecutors in Arkansas, with a variety of offenses involving the transport of women from the Marshall Islands to give their babies up for adoption in the United States. He faces charges of human trafficking, sale of a child, fraud, conspiracy, Medicaid fraud and other crimes.
He has also been charged with alleged violations of a federal law prohibiting Marshallese women from traveling to the U.S. to give children up for adoption without government permission.
The supervisors have called on Petersen to resign his position, as have county Treasurer Royce Flora, Recorder Adrian Fontes and Gov. Doug Ducey. But unless he’s convicted – felons cannot hold state or local office in Arizona – it’s questionable whether he can be forced from office by anything but a recall campaign. Petersen has not communicated with the board, and his attorney did not return a message from the Arizona Mirror.
Mosley told reporters on Monday that the board can’t simply remove Petersen, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t options.
“There are a number of options. The reason the board is cautious is there is not a lot of legal precedence for removing another countywide elected official,” Mosley said. “The board wants to make sure they’re not doing anything that’s … outside the lines.”
Mosley said the board is unaware of any countywide elected officials in Maricopa County who have been removed from office. It’s unclear whether there’s any precedent for supervisors removing elected officials in other counties.
There are several state laws that could aid the supervisors if they want to expel Petersen from the assessor’s office.
State law permits boards of supervisors to suspend county assessors and treasurers for misuse of public funds or neglect of duty, though suspensions are limited to 120 days unless a grand jury indicts the officeholder for “willful or corrupt misconduct in office.” A section of statute covering removal of county officers lists only grand jury indictment followed by conviction as a method of removal. In conjunction with a suspension, the supervisors can also seek an investigation by the county attorney.
Another statute prohibits county officers from being absent from the state for more than 30 days with approval from the Board of Supervisors. But the law is silent on what recourse, if any, the supervisors have if a county officer leaves the state for more than 30 days without the board’s consent.
The U.S. Marshal’s Office in Phoenix took custody of Petersen on Friday, and federal authorities in Arkansas have requested that he be transferred to the state. It’s unclear whether Petersen is still in Arizona, though Mosley said, “There was some discussion that he’s no longer in the state.”
Another law deems an elected office to be vacant if the officeholder is absent from the state for more than three consecutive months without the permission of the legislature, or if the officeholder ceases to discharge the duties of the office for at least three consecutive months. The statute applies to any office, board of commission of the state or any of its political subdivisions with a salary that is paid by public funds.