Maricopa County elected officials urged County Assessor Paul Petersen to resign following 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 Maricopa County Board of Supervisors on Thursday agreed that Petersen, a Republican, should step down because of the allegations. As a county assessor, Petersen is responsible for determining taxable property values for over 1.7 million properties in the state’s largest county.
“Petersen’s prompt resignation will ensure his legal issues don’t distract him from leading the County Assessor’s Office,” the board said in a statement.
Petersen, who was arrested Tuesday, is facing numerous charges in Arizona, Utah and Arkansas for 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 also 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.
“While Mr. Petersen is entitled to a presumption of innocence, our investigation uncovered evidence that he has committed horrible crimes,” Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said earlier this week. “Petersen’s illegal adoption scheme exploited highly vulnerable groups in two countries – the birth mothers and families in the Marshall Islands and the adoptive parents here in Utah.”
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.
Prosecutors in Arizona said families who adopted infants aren’t the subject of their investigation, while prosecutors in Utah said they are not interested in reversing the adoptions.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey told reporters this week that Petersen should resign as county assessor.