An Arizona official faces charges in two states for his alleged role in an international adoption fraud scheme that involved smuggling pregnant women into the U.S. from the Marshall Islands and then paying them to give up their babies, according to court documents.
Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen was charged Tuesday night with 11 felony offenses, including human smuggling, the sale of a child, and communications fraud, the Utah Attorney General’s Office said during a Wednesday press conference.
“The commercialization of children is illegal and the commoditization of children is simply evil,” AG Sean D. Reyes said, adding that authorities “have no interest in interfering with adoptions that have already taken place.”
Petersen, an adoption lawyer who is licensed in Arizona and Utah, was also hit with charges in Arizona, including conspiracy and theft, according to a Tuesday indictment filed by the state’s Attorney General’s Office. He was arrested in California, officials said.
Prosecutors allege Petersen “recruited” and transported more than 40 pregnant women from the Republic of the Marshall Islands—a country of islands between Hawaii and the Philippines—to Utah over the last three years. Reyes said Petersen first established a connection with the Marshall Islands through The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
After the children were born, Petersen allegedly offered the women money to give their babies up to U.S. parents and allegedly charged $40,000 per adoption, according to the indictment. The elected GOP official allegedly failed to disclose the scheme to his adoptive parent clients.
Arizona and Utah investigators said Wednesday they believe at least 29 babies, some of whom were brought to other states to be adopted, are victims of the scheme.
Reyes added Utah authorities were first alerted to the scheme after concerned hospital workers and adoption lawyers called a human trafficking tip line. On Tuesday evening, Arizona authorities executed search warrants in multiple locations and found eight pregnant women from the Marshall Islands inside a Mesa home. It is not immediately clear what connection Petersen has to the property.
“We are thinking of the birth mothers, adoptive families and children in this case as victims,” Reyes said, adding that Petersen’s alleged scheme “exploited highly vulnerable groups in two countries—the birth mothers and families in the Marshall Islands and the adoptive parents here in Utah.”
The 32-count indictment filed in the Superior Court of Arizona alleges Petersen and his colleague, Lynwood Jennet, also organized travel for “pregnant women from the Republic of the Marshall Islands to come to Arizona for the purpose of giving a child up for adoption.”
Prosecutors say Petersen claimed these women as Arizona residents in order to receive medical services from the state’s Medicaid system.
“After the birth of the child, Paul D. Petersen and Lynwood Jennett facilitated travel for these women to leave Arizona,” the indictment alleges. “In several instances the women returned directly to the [Republic of the Marshall Islands].”
The scheme also allegedly violated the 1983 compact with the Republic of the Marshall Islands that prevents the island’s citizens from coming to the U.S. “for the purpose of adoption” unless they have a special visa.
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich emphasized in a press conference Wednesday that the families who fell victim to the alleged scheme are not being investigated.
“These adoptions are not in jeopardy. Our focus is on the individuals who facilitated these adoptions,” Brnovich said.
Petersen was first appointed as Maricopa County assessor in 2013 after serving as the office’s liaison to the legislature. The Republican candidate was re-elected in 2016 in an unopposed election.
According to his website, the father of four has been working with adoptive parents for almost 15 years and is also an active member of the Maricopa County Republican Party and the Arizona Republican Party.