Supervisors schedule vote to suspend indicted assessor

Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors took the first step in temporarily removing county assessor Paul Petersen from office in the wake of his indictment over an alleged adoption fraud scheme, scheduling a meeting for next week so it can vote on a formal suspension.

After more than two hours behind closed doors, the supervisors on Wednesday went into open meeting for just a few minutes so they could vote unanimously to schedule another meeting for Oct. 28. State law allows county supervisors to suspend their assessors and treasurers for up to 120 days, but they must provide at least five days notice. 

If the supervisors vote to suspend Petersen in that Oct. 28 meeting, the suspension will be without pay. Petersen’s salary is $77,000. Supervisor Bill Gates, the board’s chairman, told reporters after the meeting that his interpretation is that Petersen will also not receive health insurance or other benefits during his suspension. He said he didn’t know whether Petersen or his family receive health benefits through his job as assessor.

Petersen’s most recent financial disclosure form, which covers 2018, does not list any income earned by his wife.

Petersen is an attorney who specializes in adoptions, specifically from the Marshall Islands, a small island nation of about 53,000 people in the south Pacific. He faces federal charges in Arkansas, along with state charges in Arizona and Utah, of human trafficking, sale of a child, fraud, conspiracy, Medicaid fraud and other crimes. 

State law allows suspensions of county assessors and treasurers for misuse of funds and neglect of public duty. In his motion to schedule Monday’s meeting, Supervisor Clint Hickman said Petersen meets those criteria because he’s currently in detention with severely limited access to phones or email, meaning he cannot carry out his official duties. Hickman also noted that an audit ordered by the board last week found a “multitude of documents” related to his law and adoption business on his county-issued desktop computer, which “demonstrates additional neglect of duty.”

After the meeting, Gates also pointed out that the county has a policy prohibiting employees from using their county computers for private work. While he wouldn’t say whether that policy expressly applies to elected officials such as Petersen, he told reporters, “We would hope that our countywide elected officials would live up to that.”

There is no provision in state law empowering county supervisors to remove countywide elected officials. The law also requires the supervisors to reinstate suspended officials after 120 days unless his removal is sought through indictment. Gates wouldn’t comment on what will happen once Petersen’s 120-day suspension ends.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” he said.

County spokesman Fields Mosley said the audit is not yet completed, and will be publicly released once it’s finished. He did not comment on whether it found any misuse of public funds. 

Kurt Altman, Petersen’s attorney, said it’s disappointing that the board is moving to suspend the assessor. It’s unclear what Petersen can do to challenge or reverse a suspension, but Altman said he plans to fight it.

“We don’t intend to stand by and just let them do this,” he said.

Altman said he’s seen no evidence that Petersen has neglected his duties, and doesn’t think the supervisors have any legitimate grounds to suspend him. Though Petersen is currently in federal custody, he is still in touch with his chief deputy and the assessor’s office is still running as it should, Altman said. 

Furthermore, Altman said the supervisors seem to be operating on the assumption that Petersen won’t be released from custody. Petersen already posted a $500,000 cash bond in Arizona, and has a hearing in federal court in Fayetteville, Ark., on Oct. 29, and Altman is hopeful that he and the judge reach an agreement for the assessor’s release. Petersen is still in custody in Arizona, but Altman said his pending transfer to Arkansas could happen as soon as Thursday.

The judge in the Utah case raised Petersen’s bond from $100,000 to $3 million, but Altman said she scheduled a Nov. 1 bond hearing out of recognition that the amount is inappropriately high, and he was optimistic that the bond will be lowered and that Petersen will be able to pay it.

While Altman said it makes sense that Petersen shouldn’t have been using his county computer for personal business, he said the county rule that Gates cited doesn’t apply to Petersen because he’s an elected officer, not a county employee. He said he doesn’t know what the county found on Petersen’s computer and couldn’t comment on exactly what the auditor found.

“They seem to not care too much about our system of justice and our constitution. Again, he’s been accused of things. There’s been no proof of anything, yet they went out there and tried to use a statute that is questionable constitutionality to suspend him. And it can be for nothing but politics,” he said.

Altman reiterated that Petersen has no plans to resign from his position. He’s served as assessor since the Board of Supervisors appointed him to fill a vacancy in the position in 2013.