LAUREN GILGER: Paul Peterson has admitted to felonies in two of three U.S. states where prosecutors said he ran an illegal adoption scam involving women from the Marshall Islands. The former Maricopa County assessor pleaded guilty in Arizona and Utah late last week. And Peterson’s defense attorney says a guilty plea in Arkansas could come as soon as this week. For more on this, I’m joined now by KJZZ’s Matthew Casey, who’s been covering it. Good morning, Matt.
MATTHEW CASEY: Good morning, Lauren.
GILGER: OK, so remind us what Peterson pleaded guilty to here and in Utah.
CASEY: So in Utah, he admitted to human smuggling and communications fraud. In Arizona, he admitted to Medicaid fraud to get health care for the pregnant Marshallese women, plus forgery related to putting false information into juvenile court records to help get adoptions approved. Court documents here say that he’ll have to pay back a total of about $700,000 to AHCCCS — the state Medicaid system — an uncharged victim and the attorney general’s office for its investigation:
GILGER: OK. What is Peterson expected to plead guilty to in Arkansas as well?
CASEY: So Peterson’s defense lawyer, Kurt Altman, said it’s a conspiracy charge to use illegal immigrants for profit. Altman described Peterson’s actions this way.
KURT ALTMAN: He used folks that were not citizens — the birth mothers, right? Which they weren’t. They’re not citizens. In order to make money in his adoption practice.
CASEY: Now, it’s really important to note that this is not set in stone. A deal was close, but had not been finalized on Friday afternoon when I spoke with Kurt. And no change of plea hearing had been scheduled.
GILGER: OK. So is Paul Peterson going to prison and, and if so, for how long?
CASEY: Well, the Arizona plea deal says, yes, he’s going for at least three years. The Utah attorney general says he’s seeking the maximum. But on the other hand, court documents say Peterson’s Arizona crimes are probation eligible. Records from Utah show the absolute lowest sentence he could get there could be one year at the lowest, the minimum, the basement. But assuming he does go to prison, the question of how long has a lot to do with whether the sentences are concurrent or consecutive, which means that they would be stacked on top of each other, one after another. Altman told me he thinks the real range for Peterson is three to 15 years behind bars. Altman also said his client wants to take responsibility for what he did wrong.
ALTMAN: But in the end, what he did was create many, many families for people that wanted to adopt children. And hopefully at sentencing, we expect many of those families to say exactly that.
GILGER: That sounded like a hint on a defense strategy there to get Peterson concurrent or lighter sentences there, right?
CASEY: Yeah, Lauren, that’s what I heard, too. And one way prosecutors could counter that would be to have the Marshallese mothers speak. But assuming a plea deal gets finalized in Arkansas, sentencing hearings are where the focus goes next. A day hasn’t been picked yet here in Arizona. The one in Utah is scheduled for November.
GILGER: All right. Lots more to watch for there. That is KJZZ’s Matthew Casey joining us this morning. Matt, thanks so much.
CASEY: Thank you, Lauren.
-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 KJZZ website.