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AP’s Top 2019 Arizona stories lead with indicted assessor

December 26, 2019 GMT
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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. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
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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. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Shocking allegations that a politician in metro Phoenix ran an international adoption scheme in three states that involved human smuggling, false visa claims and fraudulently obtained government benefits for pregnant women from the Marshall Islands ranks as the top news story of 2019 in Arizona.

Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen was accused Oct. 9 of making illegal payments to women to come to the United States to give up their babies in at least 70 adoption cases.

He faces human smuggling charges in Utah and Arkansas and is accused of defrauding Arizona’s Medicaid system through false applications submitted on the behalf of the women.

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Petersen has pleaded not guilty in Arizona and Arkansas and hasn’t yet entered a plea in Utah. His attorneys say Petersen ran a legal adoption practice and has been vilified.

Petersen has rejected calls for his resignation and is fighting a 120-day unpaid suspension issued by a county governing board. His co-defendant, Lynwood Jennet, pleaded guilty Dec. 19 and agreed to testify against him.

Here are the other top stories of 2019:

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BORDER ACTIVIST TRIAL

A federal jury acquitted a border activist Nov. 20 after a second trial in which prosecutors accused him of immigrant harboring and conspiracy.

The verdict came five months after a jury couldn’t reach a consensus on charges against 37-year-old Scott Warren, of Ajo, Arizona, after days of deliberation. The second jury returned a unanimous not guilty verdict a couple of hours after they started deliberating.

The case against Warren garnered international attention and prompted cries that humanitarian aid was under attack. Warren is one of several members of a group called No More Deaths who have faced charges for their work, including dropping off water jugs in the desert, although he’s the only one to face felony counts.

Warren says he was fulfilling his humanitarian duties when he encountered two Central American men who had crossed the border illegally and sought shelter at a No More Deaths base camp building. The government said Warren helped the men evade authorities.

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INCAPACITATED WOMAN-BIRTH

The shocking delivery of a baby by an incapacitated woman at a Phoenix long-term care facility just a few days before New Year’s stunned authorities and the public.

On Jan. 23, Phoenix police announced they determined the pregnancy was the result of rape by a male nurse, who they arrested, and had gone unnoticed by doctors and other staff. Nathan Sutherland has pleaded not guilty to charges of sexual abuse and vulnerable adult abuse and awaits trial.

An outraged Gov. Doug Ducey established a task force to make recommendations on how state agencies could prevent the abuse of vulnerable adults.

Hacienda HealthCare saw a mass employee exodus, including its CEO, and was placed under third-party monitoring.

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POLICE CONFRONTATION

Dramatic bystander video of a Phoenix police officer who aimed his gun and shouted obscenities at a black family he suspected of shoplifting sparked a national outcry and forced changes inside the law enforcement agency.

The couple in the May confrontation said their 4-year-old daughter took a doll from a store without their knowledge. No charges were filed, and Dravon Ames and his fiancee, Iesha Harper, alleged civil rights violations.

The department quickly issued officers hundreds of body cameras, one of last big U.S. metropolitan police departments to do so.

Police Chief Jeri Williams also began requiring officers to document each time they point weapons at a person. On Oct. 22, Williams fired Officer Chris Meyer for his handling of the call, and another officer received a written reprimand.

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NAVAJO GENERATING STATION

A massive coal-fired power plant that served customers in the U.S. West for nearly 50 years shut down Nov. 18 in the latest shift toward renewable energy and cheaper power.

The 2,250-megawatt, three-unit Navajo Generating Station near Page, Arizona, was one of the West’s largest and was long a target for environmentalists. Cheaper prices for power produced by natural gas led the owners to decide to close it.

It employed more than 430 workers. Many transferred to other jobs with operator Salt River Project, while others retired. An associated coal mine shut down months before the power plant.

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COLORADO RIVER-DROUGHT

Arizona and six other states that rely on the Colorado River agreed to protect the waterway from climate change and keep Lake Mead and Lake Powell from falling so low they cannot deliver water or hydropower.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had threatened to impose unprecedented restrictions on water supplies unless the states offered a plan to deal with shortages. Arizona’s negotiations were complicated because legislators were required to approve the plan. They just met a federal deadline.

Reclamation declared the plan complete in March, and President Donald Trump signed federal legislation April 16.

Arizona will be hit hardest. Under the plan, Arizona voluntarily gives up 7% of its annual allotment in 2020. The agreement lasts through 2026, when even steeper cuts are expected.

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ASYLUM RUSH ON ARIZONA/MEXICO BORDER

Tens of thousands of largely Guatemalan families crossed the border through the once-quiet Yuma area in 2018 and 2019, overwhelming a small Border Patrol operation with insufficient facilities to hold them.

The agency eventually spent $15 million to build a temporary tent-like facility in its parking lot. But by the time it was completed at the end of June, numbers were quickly falling. The Border Patrol in Yuma apprehended nearly 11,000 families in May, but that number had fallen to 549 by September and remains low.

Asylum-seekers also gathered in Nogales, Mexico, where they have been forced to wait before they’re offered the chance to seek asylum. Some have become desperate, running down traffic lanes at a Nogales border crossing.

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LAWMAKER RESIGNS

Prescott Republican Rep. David Stringer abruptly resigned March 27 amid an ethics investigation that turned up a 1983 Baltimore police report showing he’d been arrested on allegations he paid boys for sex.

His resignation ended a monthslong fight by Stringer to keep the allegations under wrap. The House Ethics Committee hired outside investigator s to probe Stringer’s past after the Phoenix New Times published an expunged court file showing Stringer had faced unspecified sex charges.

He also faced a backlash for his comments to conservative groups about race and immigration. Stringer denied paying boys for sex. ___

CHILDREN DROWN

Three young children died after the truck they were in was swept away Nov. 29 while crossing a flooded, raging creek.

The bodies of 5-year-old Colby Rawlings and his cousin, Austin Rawlings, also 5, were found downstream a day after the truck driven by Colby’s father got stuck and then was swept away in Tonto Creek, about 75 miles (120.70 kilometers) northeast of Phoenix.

The body of 6-year-old Willa Rawlings was found two weeks later in Roosevelt Lake. Willa and Colby’s parents, Daniel and Lacey Rawlings, and four other children were rescued.

Residents of the region have asked for a bridge to be built over the river crossing for years, and Gov. Doug Ducey has said he’ll look for funds in next year’s state budget for the $20 million project. Area lawmakers already have introduced a bill to fund the bridge.

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U.S. SENATE HISTORY

Two female U.S. senators assumed office Jan. 3, the first time in Arizona history a woman held a Senate post.

Democrat Kyrsten Sinema beat Republican Martha McSally in the 2018 election, but Gov. Doug Ducey then chose McSally for the seat previously held by the late Sen. John McCain.

McSally faces a 2020 election to retain the seat. She’ll likely be pitted against retired astronaut Mark Kelly, the husband of former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who became a prominent gun control advocate after she was nearly assassinated in 2011.

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OTHER NOTABLE EVENTS

— Arizona’s largest electric utility faced scrutiny over its power disconnections policies after an elderly woman died of heat-related causes when her service was shut off because she was just over $50 behind on her bill. Arizona Public Service Co. halted disconnections June 13. State utility regulators then enacted an emergency statewide ban on disconnections through Oct. 15 while they reviewed shutoff policies during scorching summer months.

— The Arizona Supreme Court ruled Sept. 16 that the free speech rights of two Christian artists who make wedding invitations were violated by an anti-discrimination ordinance in Phoenix that made it illegal to refuse service to same-sex couples for religious reasons.

— Arizona Department of Corrections chief Charles Ryan announced Aug. 9 that he would retire amid a litany of problems, including broken cell door locks, accusations of inhumane conditions in prisons and a judge’s ruling finding him in contempt of court for failing to improve prison health care.

— Phoenix voters soundly supported a bid to extend the light rail system in an Aug. 27 vote, rejecting a measure that aimed to stop development of the transit system.

— Gov. Doug Ducey appointed his political ally and fellow Republican Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery to the Arizona Supreme Court on Sept. 4. Civil rights advocates and criminal justice reformers were fiercely opposed to controversial prosecutor.