Phoenix • A former Arizona politician who admitted running an illegal adoption scheme in three states involving women from the Marshall Islands was sentenced in Arkansas to six years in federal prison. It was the first of three punishments he’ll face for arranging adoptions prohibited by an international compact.
Paul Petersen, a Republican who served as metro Phoenix’s assessor for six years and also worked as an adoption attorney, 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, prosecutors said.
Marshall Islands citizens have been prohibited from traveling to the U.S. for adoption purposes since 2003, and prosecutors said Petersen’s scheme lasted three years.
Judge Timothy Brooks, who imposed the sentence from Fayetteville, Ark., said Petersen abused his position as an attorney by misleading or instructing others to lie to courts in adoptions that wouldn’t have been approved had the truth been told to them.
The judge said Petersen turned what should be joyous adoption occasions into “a baby-selling enterprise.” He also described Petersen’s adoption practice as a “criminal livelihood” and said he ripped off taxpayers at the same time he was elected to serve them.
Brooks rejected Petersen’s claims that he initially thought he was acting within the bounds of the law, but later realized what he was doing was illegal.
“You knew that lying and making these false statements to immigration officials and state courts was wrong,” said Brooks, who gave Petersen two years longer in prison than sentencing guidelines recommended.
Appearing by videoconference, Petersen told the judge that his actions in the Arkansas case weren’t indicative of who he is as a person and offered an apology to any birth mothers who felt disrespected by his treatment of them.
Petersen said he was horrified to learn that subordinates he did not name during the hearing had mistreated birth mothers, though he claimed he didn’t know about it at the time and did not condone it.
“I take responsibility for my lack of oversight,” said Petersen.
Petersen, who earlier pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit human smuggling in Arkansas, faces sentencing next month for convictions in Utah and Arizona.
Federal prosecutors have said the former assessor — responsible for determining property values in the county that encompasses Phoenix — defrauded state courts, violated an international adoption compact and took advantage of mothers and adoptive families for his own profit. The money Petersen made from the adoption scheme helped pay for his lavish lifestyle, including expensive trips, luxury cars and multiple residences, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors said the passports of some birth mothers were taken away to prevent them from leaving the United States and that they were threatened with arrest if they tried to back out of adoptions. Petersen’s attorneys vigorously disputed that their client played any role in keeping some of the mothers’ passports, much less condoned it.
He is scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 22 in Phoenix for submitting false applications to Arizona’s Medicaid system so the 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.
His sentencing in Utah on human smuggling and other convictions is set for Jan. 20.
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 as Maricopa County’s assessor in January amid pressure from other county officials to resign.
Petersen has said he carried out hundreds of legal adoptions after he discovered a niche locating homes for vulnerable children from the Marshall Islands and helping needy mothers who wanted a more stable family life for their children.
Petersen in a letter to the Arkansas judge several ago said he is now ashamed, as a fiscal conservative, for imposing the pregnancy labor and delivery costs on Arizona taxpayers.
Some families whose adoptions were handled by Petersen wrote letters to the judge in support of the former assessor.