Phoenix • A former public official in Arizona accused of smuggling pregnant women from the Marshall Islands into at least three states — including Utah — pleaded guilty Thursday to fraud charges in his home state for submitting false applications to the Arizona’s Medicaid system for the mothers to receive state-funded health coverage.
Paul Petersen, a Republican who served as Maricopa County’s assessor for six years until his resignation in January, faces a maximum of 17 years in prison for his guilty pleas on Arizona charges of fraudulent schemes and forgery.
Utah prosecutors announced Thursday that they expect Petersen to plead guilty to four felonies in a Utah courtroom on Friday. Here, he currently faces eight felonies accused of human smuggling, sale of a child and pattern of unlawful activity.
His attorney, Kurt Altman, said Petersen is also scheduled to enter guilty pleas next week in Arkansas.
On behalf of Petersen, Altman acknowledged that his client and another person collaborated on getting state-funded health care for adoptive mothers, even though Petersen knew the women didn’t live in Arizona.
Asked by the judge whether Altman’s summary was correct, Petersen answered, “It’s true.”
He is accused of illegally paying women from the Pacific island nation to come to the United States to give up their babies in at least 70 adoption cases in Arizona, Utah and Arkansas over three years. Citizens of the Marshall Islands have been prohibited from traveling to the U.S. for adoption purposes since 2003.
Authorities say the women who went to Utah to give birth received little or no prenatal care. They also said Petersen and his associates took passports from the pregnant women while they were in the U.S. to assert more control over them.
Previously, Petersen had proclaimed his innocence. His attorneys have said Petersen ran a legal adoption practice and has been vilified before his side of the story comes out.
As a member of The Church of Jesus Christs of Latter-day Saints, he completed a proselytizing mission in the Marshall Islands, a collection of atolls and islands in the eastern Pacific.
Lynwood Jennet, who was accused of helping Petersen in the scheme, pleaded guilty late last year in Arizona to helping arrange state-funded health coverage for the expectant mothers, even though the women didn’t live in the state. She agreed to testify against Petersen.
Authorities say Jennet, who is scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 22, assisted the birth mothers in applying for the health benefits at the direction of Petersen.
Officials have said 28 Marshallese women gave birth in the Phoenix area as part of the scheme, costing Arizona more than $800,000 in health care expenses, and that their children were put up for adoption through Petersen.
No sentencing date has been set for Petersen in Arizona.
Salt Lake Tribune reporter Jessica Miller contributed to this story.