Former Arizona Official Pleads Guilty in Adoption Scheme

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A former elected official in Arizona who paid pregnant women as much as $10,000 to travel to the United States illegally to give up their newborn children for adoption pleaded guilty on Wednesday to a federal human smuggling conspiracy charge, the authorities said.

The former official, Paul D. Petersen of Mesa, Ariz., a private adoption lawyer who was also the assessor in Maricopa County, entered the plea in U.S. District Court in Fayetteville, Ark. He could face up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, according to David Clay Fowlkes, the acting United States attorney for the Western District of Arkansas. No sentencing date has been set.

As part of the plea, other federal charges against Mr. Petersen, 44, will be dismissed after sentencing.

The plea came several days after Mr. Petersen pleaded guilty to related state charges in Utah and in Arizona. No sentencing dates have been set for him in those cases.

“This plea agreement is one more step on a long road towards putting an end to the illegal adoption practices that have long plagued the Marshallese community in our district,” Mr. Fowlkes said in a statement.

Kurt M. Altman, a lawyer for Mr. Petersen, said in an interview, “I think the evidence shows none of these ladies were mistreated.” He also said that his client did not know at the time that the adoptions were improper. “I think he realizes now,” he said.

None of the adoptions that Mr. Petersen helped to arrange will be affected by his guilty plea, Mr. Fowlkes said in an interview. The adoptive parents “had no idea about the fraudulent nature” of Mr. Petersen’s behavior, he said. Those parents, along with the birth mothers, were “very vulnerable victims,” he said.

According to the plea agreement in the federal case, Mr. Petersen paid four pregnant women who are citizens of the Marshall Islands and did not have visas to travel to the United States for the purpose of adoption. Citizens from that nation are forbidden to come to the United States for that purpose without a visa under a compact between the two countries dating to 1983. Citizens of the islands, which are in the Pacific Ocean, east of Papua New Guinea, are free to enter and work in the United States.

Federal prosecutors cited paperwork that Mr. Petersen had filed in four separate adoptions that took place in Arkansas in 2014 and 2015. In those documents, Mr. Petersen said he was paid as much as $30,000 for his work as a “legal facilitator” while the birth mothers were paid between $7,300 and $10,800 officials said.

Mr. Petersen also declared in those records that in three of those adoptions, there was an average of $13,000 in expenses, labeled “assistants and fee,” officials said.

The cases cited in the plea agreement offer a glimpse into Mr. Petersen’s practice, which relied on big payouts from adoptive parents, and pregnant women traveling thousands of miles.

In one case, a birth mother identified by officials only as A.T. traveled from the Marshall Islands to Arkansas on Oct. 1, 2014. She gave birth in the state on Dec. 29 to a boy who was adopted on Jan. 7.

Mr. Petersen purchased a plane ticket for the birth mother to travel home on April 6.

For this, an adoptive family paid Mr. Petersen $27,000 for his work as a “legal facilitator,” officials said, citing local records that Mr. Petersen filed. In those records, Mr. Petersen said that there were $13,500 in related expenses, and that he had paid A.T. $7,300.

Another woman, identified as D.J., traveled to Arkansas on March 2, 2015, and gave birth to a boy on May 22. Six days later, that child was adopted and Mr. Petersen arranged for D.J. to travel home by June 9.

For this, Mr. Petersen was paid $32,000 for his work as a “legal facilitator,” and recorded $13,455 in expenses, as well as payment to D.J. for $10,800.

Mr. Petersen was first elected assessor in Maricopa County in 2014 and was re-elected in 2016. The assessor is responsible for land valuations and property tax policy.

Mr. Petersen was arrested in October 2019. He resigned from his job as assessor in January, according to the Arizona Republic.


An earlier version of this article misstated the distance people on the Marshall Islands traveled to reach Arkansas. They traveled thousands of miles, not hundreds of thousands of miles.

-Kurt M. Altman, PLC, is a former state and federal prosecutor and Alison Holcomb is director of the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice.

This story was originally posted on The New York Times website.