Decision on Petersen suspension may not happen until new year

This undated booking photo provided by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office shows County Assessor Paul Petersen, who has been indicted in an adoption fraud case. Photo courtesy Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.

Indicted Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen may have to wait until after the New Year to find out whether the Board of Supervisors will rescind his suspension.

The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors met in a closed-door session to get legal advice from its attorneys on Thursday, but county spokesman Fields Mosley said the supervisors would not hold an open meeting because they are still awaiting a final report on Petersen. 

That report isn’t expected until after Christmas. Mosley said it’s unlikely that the supervisors will be able to meet until at least Dec. 30, though it’s unclear whether they’ll be able to take action until after 2020 begins.

Arizona, Utah and federal authorities in October charged Petersen with more than five dozen charges related to an alleged adoption fraud ring, including human trafficking, sale of a child, fraud, conspiracy, Medicaid fraud and other crimes. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

State law permits county supervisors to suspend assessors and treasurers for up to 120 days for neglect of duty. The board handed down the maximum suspension in October, claiming he’d neglected his official duties by being absent from the assessor’s office for 20 days before he was able to make bail and get out of jail following his arrest, and because troves of documents related to his adoption and law practices were found on his county-issued computer.

Last week, Petersen’s attorney, Kory Langhofer, made his case as to why the suspension was inappropriate. He argued that no work had gone undone at the assessor’s office and that it would be inappropriate to use other allegations as a pretext to suspend an elected official based on criminal charges of which he hadn’t been convicted.

A preliminary report conducted by the law firm Mitchell Stein Carey Chapman found no evidence that Petersen had neglected any of his duties, but also concluded that he used county resources for his private business and that it would be up to the board to determine whether that and his 20-day absence constituted neglect of duty.

The board declined to vote after hearing Langhofer’s arguments. Chairman Bill Gates said the supervisors will wait until they see the final report before they make a decision.

Mosley told reporters that the final report has been delayed because investigators did not receive Petersen’s laptop from the Arizona Attorney General’s Office until Dec. 10. 

Langhofer has said Petersen will go to court to challenge the decision if the board refuses to rescind the suspension.

Prior to last week’s hearing, Petersen and the county discussed the possibility of the assessor resigning in exchange for a severance package, but were unable to reach an agreement. Mosley said on Thursday that there have been no settlement discussions since then.