Panel backs suspension of assessor in Arizona adoption case

TERRY TANG
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Elected Official Adoption Fraud

File - In this Nov. 15, 2019, file photo, Paul Petersen, an Arizona elected official accused of running a multi-state adoption scheme, leaves court following an initial appearance on charges filed in the state in Salt Lake City. A woman accused of aiding a politician in metro Phoenix in what authorities say was an illegal adoption scheme involving women from the Marshall Islands has pleaded guilty to conspiracy and theft charges. Lynwood Jennet admitted in court Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019, that she helped arrange benefits from Arizona's Medicaid program for expecting mothers who did not reside in the state. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

PHOENIX (AP) — The discovery of thousands of files related to an Arizona elected official's adoption business on a government laptop cemented a panel's decision Friday to uphold his suspension and push for his removal.

Members of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors spoke with disgust at times about County Assessor Paul Petersen during a meeting in Phoenix.

Content recovered on the laptop and noted in a report to the board included text messages of pregnant women being threatened when they changed their minds about giving up their newborns.

“To say this is disturbing to all of us on the board is certainly an understatement,” said Bill Gates, board chairman.

The panel unanimously voted to ask the county attorney to start the process to remove Petersen based on willful misconduct. The Republican was arrested and charged in a scheme involving the adoption of babies from the Marshall Islands.

Petersen has pleaded not guilty in Arizona, Arkansas and Utah to charges involving the adoption of babies from the Marshall Islands through his law firm.

Prosecutors say he illegally paid women up to $40,000 to have their babies in the United States and give them up for adoption. Charges include human smuggling, sale of a child and fraud.

During the special meeting Friday, board members released the report on a forensic analysis of his county-purchased laptop. Evidence indicated that someone had attempted to wipe the computer clean twice in the past two months.

It held more than 2,000 documents tied to Petersen's adoption business, the report said, including screenshots of texts between him and some of the pregnant women.

The report says Petersen told them he would have them evicted from where they were staying and claimed he could sever the parental rights of a father who refused to sign adoption papers.

“All you girls work for me, not the other way around,” read one text from 2018.

Petersen has denied claims that he neglected his public office. He has appealed his 120-day suspension.

He was not present at the meeting. His attorney, Kory Langhofer, declined comment when reached by phone Friday.

Lawyers for Petersen and the Board of Supervisors had pursued negotiations that would involve the suspended assessor resigning, but never came to an agreement.

A woman accused of aiding Petersen pleaded guilty Dec. 19 to helping arrange benefits from Arizona’s Medicaid program for expectant mothers even though the women didn’t live in the state.

Lynwood Jennet, 46, assisted the birth mothers in applying for the health benefits at the direction of Petersen, authorities said. Jennet’s plea deal to charges of fraud and conspiracy calls for two to four years in prison and the repayment of more than $800,000, though the money could be shared with Petersen if he’s eventually convicted on similar charges.

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Associated Press writer Anita Snow contributed to this report.