Official pleads not guilty in alleged human smuggling scheme

JACQUES BILLEAUD
Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen, right, along with his attorney, Kurt Altman, leave after Petersen's arraignment hearing in Phoenix, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. Petersen pleaded not guilty to fraud and theft charges stemming from an alleged human smuggling scheme involving pregnant women from the Marshall Islands who were brought to the U.S. to give birth for adoptions. (AP Photo/Jacques Billeaud)

PHOENIX (AP) — A lawyer for an elected official in metro Phoenix charged with running a human smuggling scheme involving pregnant women from the Marshall Islands says Tuesday that his client is willing to go to court to challenge other officials who suspended him without pay after his arrest.

Attorney Kory Langhofer says Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen will try to amicably resolve the dispute, but if that fails, he'll file a lawsuit contesting the county governing board's decision to impose a 120-day unpaid suspension.

Langhofer said the Oct. 28 decision isn't constitutionally sound, explaining his client and the board are equals who can't oust each other.

"They have decided to throw him out regardless of what the constitution says, and so I suspect this is going to end up in court," Langhofer said shortly after Petersen was arraigned in Phoenix.

Outside of court, Petersen didn't talk to news reporters after pleading not guilty to fraud and theft charges stemming from the alleged scheme.

Petersen, who in addition to his job as assessor did private-sector work in adoptions, is accused of illegally paying women from the Marshall Islands to have their babies in the United States and give them up for adoption.

Authorities say the scheme defrauded Arizona's Medicaid system of $800,000.

Petersen has been indicted on federal charges in Arkansas and charged in Arizona and Utah as part of the alleged scheme.

He has pleaded not guilty to the federal charges. He hasn't yet been arraigned in Utah.

The cases span three years and involves about 75 adoptions.

Authorities say the women were crammed in homes owned or rented by Petersen, sometimes with little to no prenatal care, and that Petersen charged families $25,000 to $40,000 per adoption.

Petersen completed a mission in the Marshall Islands, a collection of atolls and islands in the eastern Pacific, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He later worked in the islands and the U.S. on behalf of an international adoption agency before going to law school and becoming an adoption attorney.

Petersen has refused calls for him to resign.

Last week, the Board of Supervisors said state law let it suspend Petersen for "neglect of duty," citing his absence from the office during his incarceration and limited access to phone and email.

The board said an audit of the assessor's office after Petersen's arrest found files from his adoption business on his county computer, which can't be used for personal business.

"The board believes they are on solid legal footing," Fields Moseley, a spokesman for county government, said in responding to the claim that Petersen's suspension wasn't legitimate.

Board members, however, lack the power to permanently remove Petersen from his office, which determines the value of properties for tax purposes in Phoenix and its suburbs.

___

Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud.