PHOENIX — An elected official in metro Phoenix resigned Tuesday, months after being charged with running a human smuggling operation that paid pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to give up their babies in the U.S.
The resignation of Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen came after leaders in the one of the nation’s most populous counties suspended and pressured him to resign after his arrest nearly three months ago. The county’s governing board voted in late December to start the process of removing Petersen, who also works as an adoption attorney.
He is accused of illegally paying women from the Pacific island nation to come to the United States to give up their babies in at least 70 adoption cases in Arizona, Utah and Arkansas over three years. Citizens of the Marshall Islands have been prohibited from traveling to the U.S. for adoption purposes since 2003.
In a statement released by his attorneys, Petersen proclaimed his innocence and said he never neglected his duties as assessor, responsible for determining the property values in the county. The Republican said county officials and news organizations presumed he was guilty.
“My focus now turns to defending the allegations against me,” Petersen said.
He is charged with human smuggling in Utah and Arkansas and defrauding Arizona’s Medicaid system by $800,000 by submitting false applications for the women to receive state-funded health coverage.
Authorities say the women who went to Utah to give birth received little or no prenatal care. They also said Petersen and his associates took passports from the pregnant women while they were in the U.S. to assert more control over them.
Petersen has pleaded not guilty to the charges in Arizona and Arkansas. He hasn’t yet entered a plea in Utah.
His attorneys have said Petersen ran a legal adoption practice and has been vilified before his side of the story comes out. They had argued that the county governing board had no basis for suspending him.
County Supervisor Steve Gallardo said Petersen has only himself to blame for his actions. “He took advantage of these vulnerable women for his own personal greed, and he did it on county time,” Gallardo said.
Kory Langhofer, one of Petersen’s attorneys, said his client had to choose between focusing his time and money on holding onto his office or preserving his liberty. “It’s an unfair choice, but he has ultimately chosen to focus on the criminal allegations, rather than his job,” Langhofer said.
Petersen previously rejected calls to resign and was fighting his 120-day unpaid suspension.
Thousands of files related to his adoption business were discovered on his government laptop, cementing the board’s push to remove him. Content recovered on the laptop included text messages of pregnant women being threatened when they changed their minds about giving up their newborns.
Petersen, who was paid $77,000 a year in his government job, won a 2014 special election to be assessor and was re-elected in 2016. His term was scheduled to expire at the end of the year.
As a member of The Church of Jesus Christs of Latter-day Saints, he completed a proselytizing mission in the Marshall Islands, a collection of atolls and islands in the eastern Pacific.
Lynwood Jennet, who was accused of helping Petersen in the scheme, pleaded guilty last month in Arizona to helping arrange state-funded health coverage for the expectant mothers, even though the women didn’t live in the state. She has agreed to testify against Petersen.