Leaders in one of the nation’s most populous counties had pressured Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen to resign since his arrest nearly three months ago.
Federal prosecutors alleged that Petersen was the head of an adoption ring that illegally paid women from the Marshall Islands, located in the central Pacific Ocean, to give birth in the U.S. and then give their babies up for adoption.
Petersen allegedly relied on associates on the islands — where he’d done a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — to recruit women by offering them $10,000 each, then charged U.S. families between $25,000 and $40,000 per adoption.
Citizens of the Marshall Islands have been prohibited from traveling to the U.S. for adoption purposes since 2003.
Petersen is charged with human smuggling in Utah and Arkansas and defrauding Arizona’s Medicaid system of $800,000 by submitting false applications for the women to receive state-funded health coverage.
Petersen has pleaded not guilty to the charges in Arizona and Arkansas. He hasn’t yet entered a plea in Utah.
Authorities said the women came to the U.S. before they were due to give birth and were kept into cramped homes that were owned or rented by Petersen, sometimes having little to no prenatal care.
In addition to his work as an assessor, Petersen did private sector work in adoptions. The smuggling case spans three years and about 75 adoptions.
After Petersen refused prior calls to resign, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors suspended the assessor, whose office determines the value of properties in Phoenix and its suburbs for tax purposes. The board doesn’t have the power to remove him from office, but it said the law allows it to suspend Petersen, a Republican, for “neglect of duty” due to his absence from work while he’s been incarcerated.
The board said an audit of Petersen’s office after his arrest found files from the adoption business on his county computer, which can’t be used for personal business. Content recovered on the laptop included text messages of pregnant women being threatened when they changed their minds about giving up their newborns.
Prior to his resignation, Petersen had been fighting a 120-day unpaid suspension.
Petersen, who was paid $77,000 a year in his government job, won a 2014 special election to be assessor and was reelected in 2016. His term was scheduled to expire at the end of the year.
Lynwood Jennet, a Marshallese woman accused of helping Petersen in the scheme, pleaded guilty last month in Arizona to helping acquire state-funded health coverage for the expectant mothers, even though they didn’t live in the state. She has agreed to testify against Petersen.