PHOENIX (AP) — The governing board in Arizona's most populous county took the first step Wednesday toward suspending an elected official accused of running a human smuggling scheme involving pregnant women from the Marshall Islands who were brought to the U.S. to give birth for adoptions.
The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to notify Assessor Paul Petersen that it plans a public meeting next week to consider suspending him without pay for up to 120 days.
Board members lack the authority to permanently remove Petersen from his office that determines the value of properties for tax purposes in Phoenix and its suburbs.
He was arrested last week and is in federal custody and has refused to resign. Arizona law allows him to be suspended for "neglect of duty" if he's first given at least five days' notice.
The board on Wednesday said Petersen is neglecting his duties because he's not physically present in the office and has extremely limited access while in detention to telephone and email. The board also said that an audit of his office that began after his arrest found files from his adoption business on his county computer.
County employees are prohibited from using their computers for personal business "and we would hope that our countywide elected officials would live up to that," said Bill Gates, the Board of Supervisors' Republican chairman.
Petersen illegally paid women from the Marshall Islands to have their babies in the United States and give them up for adoption, authorities have said.
The women were crammed into homes owned or rented by Petersen, sometimes with little to no prenatal care, the authorities have said in court documents.
He faces charges in Arizona, Arkansas and Utah including human smuggling, sale of a child, fraud, forgery and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Petersen is a Republican elected most recently in 2016. His lawyer, Kurt Altman, said Petersen will fight to keep his job if the Board of Supervisors votes to suspend him during a meeting scheduled for Monday.
Petersen is allowed by law to request a hearing to defend himself. Altman also said the law allowing elected officials to be suspended may be unconstitutional.
"I think they're acting premature," Altman said. "I think they're overstepping their authority, and it's too bad they're rushing to judgment and so eager to do this."
Petersen's friend and former lawyer, Matt Long, has denied that Petersen's adoption business broke the law.
Petersen completed a mission in the Marshall Islands, a collection of atolls and islands in the eastern Pacific, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He later worked in the islands and the U.S. on behalf of an international adoption agency before going to law school and becoming an adoption attorney.
Prosecutors say he charged families $25,000 to $40,000 per adoption.
The criminal case spans three years and involves some 75 adoptions. There are about 30 pending adoptions in three states, authorities said in court documents.