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Former Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen sentenced to 74 months in prison for adoption fraud

Prosecutors in Arkansas will seek a 10-year prison sentence.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Former Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen was sentenced to 74 months in prison in federal court in Arkansas on Tuesday relating to his fraudulent adoption business.

In June, Petersen pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to smuggle illegal aliens for private financial gain. He faces up to 10 years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000. Petersen originally pleaded not guilty to 19 federal charges in Arkansas in October of last year.

Prosecutors in Arkansas will seek a 10-year prison sentence.

Petersen also took a plea agreement in Arizona in June, where he pleaded guilty to multiple charges related to the adoption scheme. Petersen faces between three and 12.5 years in the Arizona Department of Corrections in his first case and six months to four years in prison for the second case.

Petersen will face trials in Arizona and Utah in January.

Petersen has also pleaded guilty to charges in Utah. He's due for sentencing in both Arizona and Utah in January.

Petersen's co-defendant Lynwood Jennet pleaded guilty in Arizona in December of last year for her involvement in the adoption fraud scheme. She faces between two and four years in the Arizona Department of Corrections. A sentencing hearing for Jennet is scheduled in January.

Petersen was arrested in October of 2019 after officials across three states say he was running an illegal international adoption scheme for years.

The scheme was allegedly centered around women from the Marshall Islands. Prosecutors say Petersen took advantage of the poor women seeking a better life, holding their passports so they were unable to leave the country.

In Arizona, Petersen was also accused of claiming the women were Arizona residents so they could obtain state benefits.

Petersen would allegedly pay each pregnant woman up to $10,000 to put their children up for adoption. He would then allegedly charge adoptive families $30,000 to $40,000 per child.

Petersen eventually resigned from his position as Maricopa County assessor and Eddie Cook was appointed to replace him. Cook won the election in November. 

What was Petersen arrested for?

Petersen faces 62 criminal charges out of the three states including fraudulent schemes, human smuggling, sale of a child and more.

Petersen was allegedly orchestrating adoptions where he would help Marshallese women travel to the U.S. for the purpose of giving birth and putting their baby up for adoption.

How much did this cost?

According to court documents out of Arizona, Petersen charged families around $35,000 per adoption.

In Arizona, according to the documents, Petersen would say those fees would cover medical costs, but of the 28 identified women who gave birth in Arizona, all had their delivery cost covered by the state's Medicaid agency.

Per court documents, investigators with the state's Medicaid agency (AHCCCS) have estimated the loss to the State of Arizona to be more than $800,000 for the 28 identified birth mothers.

What happens to the children already adopted?

Officials in each state say they are not interested in interfering with adoptions that have already taken place. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said in a press conference that the birth mothers, adoptive families and children are all seen as victims in this case.

The U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas said their investigation has not revealed any birth mothers who are asking for their children back.

Adoptions officials working with the pregnant women have confirmed to 12 News that many of the Marshallese women have chosen to parent their children since Petersen’s arrest.

Why is this illegal?

This arrangement violates an agreement called the Compact of Free Association between the U.S. and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, which bars Marshallese citizens from entering the U.S. if their travel is for the purpose of adoption.

The treaty provision on child adoptions was enacted in the early 2000s to prevent unregulated international adoptions where the biological mothers' cultural misunderstandings might be exploited. 

For example, a 2002 study showed many women from the Marshall Islands allowed their children to be adopted by U.S. citizens thinking their children would benefit from better education and return to them as adults.

What was Petersen's connection to the Marshall Islands?

Utah AG Sean Reyes says Petersen is connected to the Marshall Islands because he went on a mission to the islands with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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