A former Arizona Republican began serving the first of three sentences on Thursday for running an illegal adoption scheme that paid pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to come to the U.S. and give away their babies.
Paul Petersen, 45, a former adoption attorney who was the Maricopa County Assessor for six years, was sentenced for six years in December after pleading guilty in a federal court in Arkansas to conspiring to commit human smuggling from the Marshall Islands. The Marshall Islands are the collection of atolls and islands located near the equator in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and the Philippines.
Petersen was county assessor, where he was responsible for determining property values in Arizona, until January 7, 2020, when he resigned to focus on his criminal defense. He faced growing calls from the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors for him to step down after his arrest in October 2019.
The disgraced attorney is awaiting sentencing in state courts in Arizona for fraud convictions and in Utah for human smuggling and other crimes, though the sentencing dates for those cases have not yet been set.
People from the Marshall Islands can travel to the U.S. freely under the Compact of Free Association between the two countries. Since 2003, citizens there have been prohibited from traveling to the U.S. for adoption purposes.
Prosecutors alleged Petersen illegally paid women from the Marshall Islands to give up their babies in at least 70 adoption cases in Arizona, Arkansas and Utah. Almost all of the adoptions Petersen arranged through his Mesa law office were with birth mothers from the east Pacific state. Law enforcement determined that Petersen orchestrated the travel of several pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to Arkansas to arrange adoption of their children by families living in the U.S.
The former GOP member is serving his sentence at a federal prison near El Paso, Texas.
U.S. District Judge Timothy L. Brooks gave Petersen two more years in jail than the sentencing guidelines recommended and described the former official’s adoption practice as a “criminal livelihood”. The judge said Petersen knowingly made false statements to immigration officials and state courts in carrying out the scheme.
Petersen has appealed the sentence. His attorney, Kurt Altman, did not respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press.
In Arizona, Peterson pleaded guilty to fraud charges for submitting false Medicaid applications so Marshallese birth mothers could receive state-funded health care, even though he knew they lived overseas. He also pleaded guilty for providing documents to a juvenile court that contained false information.
Peterson said he has since paid the state back $670,000 of more than $800,000 in health care costs that prosecutors cited in his indictment.
-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 Newsweek website.