Paul Petersen, accused of human smuggling, makes first court appearance in Utah

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Paul Petersen, an Arizona elected official accused of running a multi-state adoption scheme, leaves court following an initial appearance on charges filed in the state Friday, Nov. 15, 2019, in Salt Lake City. Prosecutors in three states say Petersen brought pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to the United States and paid them to give up their babies for adoption. He's pleaded not guilty.

An Arizona public official accused of smuggling pregnant women from the Marshall Islands into at least three states made his first court appearance in Utah early Friday.

Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen is facing eight felonies in Utah, accused of human smuggling, sale of a child and pattern of unlawful activity.

At his hearing Friday, attorneys set a date for a February preliminary hearing. Prosecutors will present evidence and testimony at that hearing, and a judge will decide whether there is enough evidence for the case to move forward to trial.

The Utah attorney general’s office accuses Petersen of smuggling at least 40 pregnant women into the Beehive State from the Marshall Islands to facilitate the adoption of their children.

He also faces charges in Arizona and Arkansas for similar allegations.

(Scott G. Winterton | Pool) Paul Petersen appears at court in the Matheson courthouse in Salt Lake City Utah with his attorney Scott Williams on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. Petersen is facing multiple charges of human smuggling among other charges in other states.

Utah officials said last month that they began investigating Petersen's adoption law practice in October 2017, after a hospital staffer in Utah called an attorney general tip line with concerns about a possible illegal adoption involving a Marshallese woman who had given birth at the hospital.

They say they uncovered a troubling scheme in which Petersen facilitated the travel of dozens of women to Utah for illegal adoptions between December 2016 and August 2019.

Petersen’s website boasts that he can help couples adopt children “without the direct involvement of a third party, such as an adoption agency or a state agency.”

But the Utah attorney general’s office says Petersen violated a compact between the U.S. and the Marshall Islands, which bans Marshallese people from traveling to the United States for adoptions — unless they have a special visa.

Charging records allege that Petersen — an adoption lawyer licensed in Utah, Arizona and Arkansas — charged couples in the United States $35,000 to adopt children from the Marshall Islands.

He’s accused of hiring people to recruit pregnant Marshallese women to give birth in the United States, then give up their children for adoption. The women received $10,000, charges state, and the costs of their travel were paid. Many left the country weeks after their children were born, officials say.

Petersen’s attorneys have denied the allegations, and the Arizona elected official has fought to keep his position. Leaders in Maricopa County suspended the assessor without pay for 120 days, but they don’t have the power to permanently remove him from office.