The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Monday to suspend county assessor Paul Petersen, who is facing state and federal charges over his adoption business, alleging neglect of his official duties.
Supervisor Bill Gates, the board’s chairman, said an audit found about 1,500 documents on Petersen’s county computer and in his office related to his private law and adoption business. The documents date back as far as 2006, years before his 2013 appointment to the position, when he worked for the office. Petersen was subsequently elected to the office in 2016.
Of the documents auditors reviewed, only 13 percent were related to his official duties, Gates told reporters after the board voted to suspend Petersen.
The supervisors also suspended Petersen over his extended absence from the assessor’s office since Oct. 8, when he was arrested. Petersen has been in custody since then and is currently in federal custody in Arkansas, where he faces charges.
“Although you can certainly delegate tasks, you cannot delegate responsibility,” Gates said during a special meeting of the board on Monday.
The suspension is for 120 days, the maximum allowed under state law.
Gates said he sent Petersen a letter notifying him of the pending suspension vote and asked two questions: How is he fulfilling his official duties since his arrest, and why did he have so many documents related to private business on his county computer, server and office? Petersen did not respond, Gates said.
“For me, this was a very difficult decision. This is not something that we take lightly. We recognize that everyone is innocent until proven guilty and that this wasn’t about the criminal case at all,” Gates said after the meeting.
County supervisors began discussing suspending Petersen after he was arrested earlier this month. The board ordered the audit following his arrest, as well.
Kurt Altman, Petersen’s attorney, said there is no basis to suspend his client.
“The allegations against him have nothing to do with the operation of the County Assessor’s Office which has not missed a beat during this trying time for Paul and his family,” Altman said in a statement texted to the Arizona Mirror. “As stated before, the reasons being used by the (Board of Supervisors) are wholly insufficient under the statute, which itself is very likely in violation of Arizona’s Constitution.”
Petersen, whose salary is $77,000, will be suspended without pay. Gates said he doesn’t know if Petersen gets other benefits from the county, but any benefits he receives will run out after 60 days.
State law allows the supervisors to suspend the county assessor or treasurer for neglect of duty or financial misconduct, but it doesn’t permit them to expel him. Gates said “there could be other things that occur by operation of law that could lead to a vacancy in the office,” but did not elaborate. One state law deems an office vacant if the officeholder doesn’t fulfill his duties for three consecutive months, or if an officeholder is absent from the state for three months without the approval of the legislature.
Gates noted that Petersen can appeal his suspension. However, that appeal would go before the same supervisors who voted unanimously to suspend him.
The supervisors now must appoint a temporary replacement. Gates didn’t have a timeline for that process, but said the board will move quickly on the appointment process.
The audit that the supervisors ordered did not find any evidence of financial impropriety, Gates said. That audit will be released to the public late Monday afternoon, a county spokesman said.
Altman has said Petersen will not resign.
Altman told Arizona Mirror last week that he’s hopeful Petersen could be released from custody soon. He has already posted a $500,000 for his Arizona charges and has a hearing in Fayetteville, Ark., on Tuesday. Several media outlets reported that a Utah judge on Friday reduced Petersen’s bail there from $3 million to $150,000.
Petersen is an attorney who specializes in adoptions, specifically children born to women from the Marshall Islands, a small island nation of about 53,000 people in the south Pacific. He faces federal charges in Arkansas, and state charges in Arizona and Utah, of human trafficking, sale of a child, fraud, conspiracy, Medicaid fraud and other crimes.
At least one candidate is already eying Petersen’s seat. Attorney Rodney Glassman, a former Democratic Tucson city councilman who became a Republican and has since unsuccessfully run for Corporation Commission and sought appointment as Maricopa County attorney, is running for the position, according to a statement released on Friday by county treasurer Royce Flora.