MESA, Ariz. — Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen has been indicted in an international adoption fraud scheme that involves human smuggling, sale of children and communications fraud, multiple state attorneys general confirmed Tuesday evening.
The Arizona Attorney General’s office did not provide additional details but said it will hold a news conference Wednesday morning to talk about the charges the elected Maricopa County official faces in multiple states.
A release from the Utah Attorney General's Office says Petersen was arrested in California Tuesday evening. The Utah Attorney General said it is charging Petersen with human smuggling, sale of a child and communications fraud.
According to Arizona court documents, Petersen—an adoption lawyer licensed in Utah and Arizona—and Lynwood Jennet helped pregnant women travel from the Republic of the Marshall Islands in the central Pacific Ocean to Arizona to give up their children for adoption.
The court documents say the women returned directly to the Marshall Islands in several instances.
The Utah Attorney General's Office said Petersen also transported more than 40 pregnant Marshallese women into Utah over the last three years.
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.
The Utah Attorney General's Office said in a release that the case was first uncovered when concerned hospital workers called the human trafficking tip line.
Petersen and Jennet are also accused of falsely claiming some of the pregnant women were residents of Arizona to get medical services provided by the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System.
Arizona court documents say he's been running the adoption scheme since 2015. Petersen faces charges of conspiracy, fraud, theft and forgery in Arizona.
The website for Petersen's law office says it specializes in private adoption, which "occurs without the direct involvement of a 3rd party—such as an adoption agency or a state agency." The website also says Petersen has contacts in Arizona, Arkansas and Utah.
The website says it would cost $30,000 to $40,000 to adopt a child through Petersen's firm.
Authorities were seen raiding Petersen's Mesa home and law office Tuesday evening.
The investigation involves the Arizona Department of Public Safety, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and authorities from Arizona, Arkansas and Utah.
Petersen will face additional charges in Arkansas, according to the Utah Attorney General's Office.