Ex-Arizona politician in adoption scheme must head to prison; still awaiting sentencing in Utah

Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen leaves court in Salt Lake City, Nov. 15, 2019. He resigned from his elected position on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020, months after being charged with running a human smuggling operation that paid pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to give up their babies in the U.S. | Associated Press file photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

PHOENIX (AP) — A former Arizona politician must report to prison by midday Thursday to begin serving the first of what will be three sentences stemming from an illegal adoption scheme he acknowledged running in three U.S. states involving pregnant women from the Marshall Islands.

Paul Petersen, a Republican who served as Maricopa County Assessor for six years and also worked as an adoption attorney, was sentenced to six years after pleading guilty in federal court in Arkansas to conspiring to commit human smuggling.

Petersen is awaiting sentencing in state courts in Arizona for fraud convictions and in Utah for human smuggling and other convictions. Sentencing dates have not yet been set for the cases from those states.

Prosecutors have said Petersen illegally paid women from the Pacific island nation to come to the U.S. to give up their babies in at least 70 adoptions cases in Arizona, Utah and Arkansas. Marshall Islands citizens have been prohibited from traveling to the U.S. for adoption purposes since 2003.

Kurt Altman, Petersen’s attorney, did not immediately respond to phone and email messages seeking comment on behalf of his client.

Petersen will serve his sentence from Arkansas at a federal prison near El Paso, Texas.

In this 2019 file photo, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes talks about the case against Paul D. Petersen during a news conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, Oct. 9, 2019 | Photo by Jeremy Harmon/The Salt Lake Tribune via The Associated Press, St. George News

The judge gave him two years longer in prison than sentencing guidelines recommended, describing Petersen’s adoption practice as a “criminal livelihood” and saying Petersen knowingly made false statements to immigration officials and state courts in carrying out the scheme.

Petersen has appealed the punishment.

In Arizona, he pleaded guilty to fraud charges for submitting false applications to Arizona’s Medicaid system so the birth mothers could receive state-funded health coverage — even though he knew they didn’t live in the state — and for providing documents to a county juvenile court that contained false information.

Petersen has said he has since paid back $670,000 in health care costs to the state of more than $800,000 that prosecutors cited in his indictment.

Earlier in his life, Petersen, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christs of Latter-day Saints, had completed a proselytizing mission in the Marshall Islands, a collection of atolls and islands in the eastern Pacific, where he became fluent in the Marshallese language.

He quit his elected job as Maricopa County’s assessor last year amid pressure from other county officials to resign.

Written by JACQUES BILLEAUD, The Associated Press.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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