The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Monday to suspend Assessor Paul Petersen, who was arrested earlier this month on charges that allege he ran an illegal adoption scheme that brought pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to the United States and put their infants up for adoption once they were born.
The board doesn't have the power to remove Petersen from office, but state law allows it to suspend an elected official for "neglect of duty."
Petersen has been in federal custody since Oct. 8, when he was initially charged, and has been unable to perform his duties as assessor.
The board voted to suspend him for 120 days, the maximum allowable by state law.
Petersen is facing numerous charges in Arizona, Utah and Arkansas for allegedly operating fraudulent schemes, conspiracy, theft, forgery, human smuggling and sale of a child. The U.S. Department of State and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are involved in the investigation.
Petersen, also a licensed adoption lawyer in Arizona and Utah, offered pregnant women in the Marshall Islands money to put their infants up for adoption in the U.S. and paid to have them flown to Arizona, Utah and Arkansas. After giving birth, Petersen would pay to have the women leave Arizona, often to Arkansas or back to the Marshall Islands.
Made up of a chain of atolls located between Hawaii and Papua New Guinea, the Marshall Islands are home to about 53,000 people. The U.S.’s Compact of Free Association with the Republic of the Marshall Islands bars the island’s citizens from traveling to the U.S. for adoption reasons.
The state of Arizona also alleges Petersen defrauded the state over $814,000 in health care costs. Prosecutors allege Petersen directed the women to lie about their residency to qualify for state-funded healthcare through the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS), which requires residency to be eligible.
Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located, is Arizona's most populous county.