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Utah’s AG charges Arizona county assessor with human smuggling

Courtesy: Maricopa County Assessor's Office

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Utah’s Attorney General’s office filed charges alleging that an elected county assessor in Arizona, Paul Petersen, ran an illegal adoption scheme and could be guilty of human smuggling.

Petersen, a licensed adoption lawyer in Arizona and in Utah, faces 11 felony charges related to the alleged illegal adoption scheme. In all, Petersen faces 32 counts of human smuggling and sale of a child in Utah and conspiracy and fraud in Arizona.

A federal grand jury has indicted Petersen on additional 19 charges.

“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,” Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes said.

A multi-jurisdiction scheme

Prosecutors argue the Maricopa County assessor recruited more than 40 pregnant women from the Marshall Islands over the last three years, bringing them to Utah, then paying them to give their children up for adoption.

Adding the Arizona adoptions to the charges brings the total number of adoptions in the scheme to more than 70.

Reyes said Petersen failed to disclose the nature of the scheme to his client’s adoptive parents, leading to charges of communications fraud.

In the statement from his office, Reyes said, “Due to a long history of adoption-related exploitation in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, adoptions between the United States and the Marshall Islands are governed by an Interstate Compact that prohibits this type of international adoption.”

“While Mr. Petersen is entitled to a presumption of innocence, our investigation uncovered evidence that he has committed horrible crimes,” Reyes said.

The attorney general’s office created a hotline to help anyone impacted by Petersen’s alleged offenses: 801-839-5640.

The defense responds

Petersen’s attorney, Matthew Long, disagreed with the allegations at a Tuesday court hearing in Phoenix. He called his client’s actions “proper business practices.”

Long argued against a cash bond of $500,000, saying Petersen should not be considered a flight risk because of his strong ties to his hometown of Mesa, Arizona. Long said Petersen was aware he was being investigated. The attorneys general of Utah and Arizona say because of Petersen’s ties to the Marshall Islands, he should be considered a flight risk.

In a probable cause statement, Arizona Department of Public Safety detectives said Petersen worked with employees based in the Marshall Islands to find pregnant women. They brought those women to the U.S. to give birth, the court documents say, then placed their children with American adoptive parents.

The investigation begins

Arizona Department of Public Safety Director Col. Frank Milstead told KTAR his agency started investigating when a trooper was contacted by a friend last year. That friend went to Petersen’s office for help adopting a child.

“After the initial meeting, this particular person was concerned about the legitimacy of the process, the fees involved in the process, and talked to our detective trooper,” Milstead said.

Milstead said Petersen did not speak to officers when they arrested him near Gila Bend.

Reyes’ office in Utah became aware of the situation when hospital workers called the human trafficking tip line. Reyes thanked those who came forward, as well as the multiple agencies across state and international boundaries who assisted.

“It is heartbreaking that these families from both countries were so cruelly manipulated,” Reyes added.

Human smuggling, or just helping families in need?

Reyes and his Arizona counterpart say Petersen paid for the Marshallese women to travel to the U.S. before giving birth. They believe Petersen housed the women in a home he owned until they gave birth.

Authorities said the U.S. parents adopting the babies paid about $35,000 to do so.

Then, investigators say, Petersen and his organization flew the women either to the Marshall Islands or to another U.S. state. Arkansas, which has a large number of Marshallese immigrants, received a number of the women, the court documents said.

On the Arizona side of the case, that state’s assistant attorney general, Scott Blake, said Petersen knew what he was doing was illegal, but did not stop.

“What Mr. Petersen is also accused of doing is an affront, frankly, to all Arizona taxpayers,” Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich said at a news conference Wednesday.

A widespread operation

Reyes and Brnovich say Petersen employed Marshallese women in all three states – Arizona, Utah and Arkansas – to help with the operation.

According to the court documents, those women bought food and cellphones for the pregnant mothers, applied for federal healthcare benefits, took them to their medical appointments, served as translators and even notarized important documents.

The court filing argues Petersen defrauded Medicaid in Arizona to the tune of $800,000 because the Marshallese women applied for assistance knowing they did not intend to stay in that state.

Grand jury issues indictments

Federal investigators are charging Petersen with nineteen additional counts. A federal grand jury is indicting Peterson on charges of conspiracy to smuggle illegal aliens for commercial advantage and private financial gain.

The investigators say Petersen allegedly acted to intentionally conceal his involvement in payments and wire transactions totaling more than one million dollars.

The federal charges include seven counts of wire fraud and five counts of mail fraud.

What happens now?

Tuesday, authorities executed search warrants in multiple locations in Arizona. Milstead said they found eight pregnant women, all from the Marshall Islands.

Brnovich said no completed adoptions are in jeopardy, nor will any adopted children be returned. Additionally, the parents who adopted the children and the birth mothers are not a focus of the investigation.

In addition to Petersen, the indictment names Lynwood Jennet, a woman accused of helping the birth mothers apply for Medicaid benefits and serving as a point of contact with Marshallese workers.

Petersen, a Republican, first became the assessor of Maricopa County in a 2014 special election. County assessors help determine property values for tax purposes.