Phoenix • A former Arizona politician must report to prison Thursday to begin serving the first of three sentences for running an illegal adoption scheme that paid pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to come to the U.S. to give up their babies.
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, who has acknowledged running the adoption scheme, 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 those cases.
Prosecutors have said Petersen illegally paid women from the Pacific island nation to give up their babies in at least 70 adoption cases in Arizona, Utah and Arkansas. Marshall Islands citizens have been prohibited from traveling to the U.S. for adoption purposes since 2003.
Petersen’s attorney, Kurt Altman, did not immediately respond to phone and email messages seeking comment.
Petersen will serve his sentence in the Arkansas case at a federal prison near El Paso, Texas.
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 the state’s Medicaid system so the birth mothers could receive state-funded health coverage — even though he knew they didn’t live in Arizona — and for providing documents to a juvenile court that contained false information.
Petersen has said he has since paid back to the state $670,000 of more than $800,000 in health care costs 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. As assessor, Petersen was responsible for determining property values in the county that encompasses Phoenix.