An Arizona county assessor is accused of human smuggling as part of a scheme that involved more than 40 pregnant women from the Marshall Islands brought to the United States to give up their babies for adoption, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.
Paul D. Petersen, an adoption lawyer licensed in Utah and Arizona and elected Maricopa County assessor, was arrested Tuesday night in Arizona, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes told reporters. He faces 11 felony counts in Utah, including human smuggling, sale of a child and communications fraud. He also faces fraud, conspiracy, theft and forgery charges in Arizona.
Petersen's illegal adoption scheme allegedly involved the recruitment, transportation and payments to dozens of pregnant women from the islands in the central Pacific , according to Reyes.
"The commercialization of children is illegal and the commoditization of children is simply evil," Reyes said.
The investigation, which also includes Arkansas, dates to October 2017 when the Utah attorney general's human trafficking tip line began receiving calls about suspicious births and adoptions involving Marshallese women, authorities said.
"Petersen's illegal adoption scheme exploited highly vulnerable groups in two countries -- the birth mothers and families in the Marshall Islands and the adoptive parents here in Utah," Reyes said.
Petersen's attorney calls his actions 'proper business practices'
At a hearing in Arizona on Tuesday, Matthew Long, Petersen's attorney, called his client's actions "proper business practices" and said they "look forward to challenging" the allegations in court. He described Petersen's $500,000 cash bond as "curious and troubling."
Long did not respond to a request for comment.
The Maricopa County Assessor's Office said the arrest did not disrupt service to county homeowners. "The leadership team will continue to facilitate the day to day operations to ensure the highest level of customer service," the office said in a statement.
The indictment against Petersen in Arizona lists a woman named Lynwood Jennet as a co-defendant. Jennet is Marshallese and worked with Petersen at his law firm, according to Mia Garcia, spokeswoman for the Arizona attorney general. It's unclear whether Jennet has an attorney.
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich said in a statement that Petersen allegedly falsified information to place the Marshallese women on state-funded health care to cover delivery costs.
The Arizona scheme bilked the state out of more than $814,000, the statement said. After the adoptions, the women either moved to Arkansas or returned to the Marshall Islands. Petersen and Jennet are accused of directing the mothers to fraudulently misrepresent their residency status to obtain health care benefits.
Authorities in Arizona and Utah stressed they have no interest in interfering with adoptions that have already taken place.
"They are not under investigation, and their adoptions are not in danger if they are complete," Richard Piatt, a spokesman for the Utah attorney general, said of the families.
More than 40 pregnant Marshallese women were transported to Utah between 2016 and 2019
In Utah, according to court documents, Petersen is accused of running an enterprise to transport pregnant Marshallese women to the state for adoptions. The women were housed in residences Petersen allegedly owned or leased, according to the documents.
"The defendant collected proceeds from each adoption in the form of fees paid to him by adoptive parents," the documents said.
Petersen is accused of transporting or securing transportation for more than 40 pregnant Marshallese women to Utah between August 2016 and August 2019, the documents said.
Through associates of Petersen, each woman was allegedly offered $10,000 "to induce them to place their children up for adoption in Utah," the documents said.
The investigation began after hospital staff reported "an influx of Marshallese women giving birth at Utah hospitals and giving their babies up for adoption," according to the documents. The women reported the same address and their adoption paperwork referred to the same attorney, Petersen.
In February 2018, a pregnant Marshallese woman told a social worker that she did not know the parents adopting her baby and that she was being paid for the adoption, the documents said. An associate of Petersen admitted to the social worker that she gets housing and bills paid in return for traveling to the Marshall Islands to "find pregnant women to adopt their babies out."
A memorandum of understanding sent to one adoptive family by Petersen listed a fee of $35,000, with $25,000 paid up front and $10,000 after the baby was delivered, according to documents.
Subpoenaed bank records showed deposits of more than $2.7 million into an account set up for adoption payments between December 2016 and September 2018, the documents said.
The Maricopa county assessor's website describes Petersen as a graduate of the Arizona State University Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, adoption attorney and twice-elected assessor. The bio says Petersen has spent nearly 15 years providing counsel for adoptive and birth parents in hundreds of adoption cases since beginning his practice.
"In his limited free time, Assessor Petersen attempts to play tennis and golf. Most of all, he enjoys spending time with his family," according to his bio.