Supervisors delay decision on Petersen suspension after testy hearing

Attorney Kory Langhofer, who represents indicted County Assessor Paul Petersen, spoke at a hearing contesting Petersen's suspension by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. Listening to Langhofer, from left to right, are supervisors Jack Sellers, Steve Chucri and Bill Gate. Photo courtesy Maricopa County.

A hearing to determine whether the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors would rescind its suspension of indicted assessor Paul Petersen ended early after his lawyer said an adversarial attitude by an attorney for the county made it pointless to continue.

Kory Langhofer, who represents Petersen, repeatedly objected to the lines of questioning pursued by attorney John Doran, who is advising the supervisors in the matter, suggesting that Doran was acting more like a prosecutor than as a legal advisor to an ostensibly neutral body.

Prior to Wednesday’s hearing, Langhofer had referred to the proceeding as a “farce” and a “show trial.” He said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the supervisors’ conduct during the hearing, but was disappointed in Doran.

“We wanted to suspend disbelief about whether a proceeding like this would be productive. And I do not believe the participation of someone in a role like Mr. Doran makes further witnesses a productive use of our time,” Langhofer said after his final witness stepped down.

Petersen faces criminal charges in Arizona and Utah, as well as federal charges in Arkansas, over his work arranging the adoption of children born to mothers from the Marshall Islands. He faces a total of 62 charges, including human trafficking, sale of a child, fraud, conspiracy, Medicaid fraud and other crimes. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

State law permits county boards of supervisors to suspend county assessors and treasurers for up to 120 days for financial misconduct or neglect of duty. The supervisors imposed the maximum suspension in October, alleging that Petersen had neglected his duties because he’d been absent from work for 20 days during his post-arrest incarceration, and because an audit found that the majority of the files on his work computer were related to his adoption and law practice. 

An investigation commissioned by the supervisors found no evidence that Petersen had neglected any of his official duties. But the preliminary investigative report from law firm Mitchell Stein Carey Chapman also concluded that Petersen used county resources for private business, and that the board could find that he had a duty to follow county policies forbidding such activities, even though those policies don’t apply to elected officials.

Ultimately, it’s up to the board to determine whether Petersen’s use of county resources and his 20-day absence from work constituted neglect of duty under the law, the preliminary report stated.

At the conclusion of the hearing, board Chairman Bill Gates said the supervisors would wait until the final report is completed before making a decision about Petersen’s suspension. Doran said he didn’t know when that report is expected, but that it would be “sooner rather than later.”

In his opening statements, Langhofer said criminal charges aren’t legal cause to remove or suspend an elected official. If Petersen is convicted, he’ll have to step down. But it would be a “tremendous disservice to our system of government” to simply come up with a pretext to suspend someone when the real reason is based on unproven criminal charges.

Langhofer argued that no work went undone or was neglected at the county assessor’s office, and Tim Boncoskey, who is Petersen’s chief deputy assessor, testified to that effect. 

Boncoskey said Petersen’s indictment and his absence from the office following his Oct. 8 arrest has not affected the office’s ability to do its work. The office is sending its annual property valuations to the Arizona Department of Revenue this week, and he noted that the office has won two awards since Petersen’s arrest. There was a delay in the rollout of a new program, but Boncaskey said that would have happened regardless of whether Petersen was there.

“It is our position that the assessor’s private business is such and that it has not and will not interfere with valuations and classifications and other programs run by the office,” Boncoskey said. “I believe every statutory duty of the assessor has been adhered to because that is our job. It is a job bigger than one person.”

But Doran noted that Boncaskey was only to speak briefly with Petersen twice during the 20 days he was behind bars. That, he said, didn’t constitute providing guidance to the assessor’s office and overseeing its day-to-day operations, as Boncaskey described Petersen’s duties.

During a sometimes contentious round of questioning, Doran questioned whether Petersen was leading by example when he used county resources for his personal business and only speaks twice with his staff during a three-week period. 

“The issue is whether or not Mr. Petersen was fulfilling his duties as an officer, not whether the office was fulfilling its duties,” Doran told reporters after the hearing. “He’s a leader. He has leadership duties. He has to lead by example. He has to be there on a day-to-day basis to provide guidance to the agency. And he didn’t.”

Langhofer countered, telling reporters that failing to lead by example is not a satisfactory basis to suspend someone from office under the law.

“The idea that Paul didn’t demonstrate adequate leadership and therefore you can take away a constitutional office, we’ve got that to say about a few other constitutional officers,” Langhofer told reporters. 

As to the documents found on Petersen’s county computer and his office that related to his law and adoption practices, Langhofer said most county employees likely have some personal items on their work computers related to emails with their wives, a private enterprise or their fantasy football teams. 

And the county policy that bars employees from using official resources for private business does not apply to elected officials, he noted.

“It’s basically a rule made for one man at one time. That is not a rule at all. It is a pretext,” Langhofer said.

As his second and final witness, Langhofer called Russell Pearce, chief deputy to county treasurer Royce Flora. Pearce, a former state Senate president, testified for only two minutes. He said the treasurer’s office works very closely with the assessor’s office, and that the treasurer saw no evidence of the office’s official duties not being performed during Petersen’s absence.

Pearce did say he thought the board had reason to suspend Petersen while he was absent due to his incarceration. But since he’s been released, Pearce said he thinks Petersen has a right to perform his official duties.

Doran told reporters after the hearing that the issue isn’t whether Petersen was able to perform his duties after his release from jail. The issue was his neglect of duty while he was incarcerated, and the board isn’t required to reinstate him after his release just because the conditions that gave rise to his suspension in the first place have disappeared.

Asked whether it’s appropriate to punish an elected official for an involuntary absence based on criminal charges for which Petersen hasn’t been convicted, Doran said the suspension isn’t a punishment. He said Petersen wasn’t suspended for being accused of crimes.

Langhofer said he had one other witness he would have called had Doran’s approach not been so adversarial: Leslie Kratz, the assistant chief deputy assessor, whose testimony would have largely echoed Boncaskey’s.

One person who wasn’t there to testify was Petersen himself. Langhofer said Petersen’s defense attorney in his criminal case advised him not to testify and to “save his testimony” for the criminal trial. Due to Boncaskey’s testimony and the information in the county’s preliminary report, Langhofer said there was no need for Petersen to testify.

Doran disagreed.

“I have so many questions for Mr. Petersen and too many to list, frankly,” he said.

Doran also disputed Langhofer’s characterization of his conduct toward Boncaskey, and denied that he was interrogating the witness.

“I asked the questions the witnesses needed to speak to and I got the answers that the witnesses wanted to share with us,” he said.

In the weeks before the hearing, Petersen and the county discussed the possibility of him resigning in exchange for a severance package that would provide part of his $77,000 salary and health benefits. They were unable to reach an agreement, and Langhofer said county was not making serious offers. 

Langhofer told reporters after the hearing that Petersen would be willing to step down in exchange for nine months’ severance.