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Legally Speaking: Indictment, arrest just start of Arizona adoption scandal

(MCSO Photos)

Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen has been indicted in an adoption scandal on 32 counts of conspiracy, fraudulent schemes, theft and forgery by an Arizona grand jury.

These crimes range from class 5 felonies up to class 2 felonies. According to the indictment, Peterson arranged to have numerous pregnant women from the Marshall Islands travel to the United States, specifically Arizona, to have their babies and put them up for adoption.

During the process, he would charge American families around $35,000 for each adoption to cover attorneys fees, travel costs, and health care costs of the mother and the birth.

However, according to the indictment, he would help the women apply for state health care benefits to pay for those same medical costs and lie on the applications costing Arizona tax payers over $800,000.

This investigation spanned activities that occurred over four years, included multiple law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies, and resulted in both state and federal charges.

Suffice it to say, Arizona has another serious scandal involving a politician on its hands.

First, let’s discuss the counts and what they mean.

Count 1: Petersen is charged with conspiracy to commit fraudulent schemes and artifices, theft and fraudulent schemes and practices.

Basically, Peterson and Lynwood Jennet agreed to a scheme to commit the crimes of submitting false applications to the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System – the state’s Medicaid program – on behalf of the pregnant women and actually did it.

The prosecutor will need to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, these two made an agreement to break the law and took at least one step in furtherance of their plan to break the law.

This is a class 2 felony with a sentencing range of probation to 12.5 years. Probation is a possibility if Petersen doesn’t have any priors.

Count 2: Petersen is charged with fraudulent schemes and artifices, a class 2 felony.

He faces the same sentencing range as count 1, probation to 12.5 years.

Here, the prosecutor needs to prove that pursuant to the scheme to defraud Medicaid, he lied to AHCCCS when he represented the pregnant women as residents of Arizona and were qualified to receive the benefits.

The indictment alleges the women were not qualified because: 1. they were not residents of Arizona, they came here only for adoption purposes; and 2. under the Compact of Free Association between the U.S. and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, these women are prohibited from entering the U.S. if their travel is for the purpose of adoption.

Count 3: This one is simple – theft.

Petersen stole money from AHCCCS with the fraudulent applications. This is another class 2 felony with the same range of probation to 12.5 years.

Counts 4-31: Fraud schemes and practices. All these counts are the same but the dates are different.

Since the dates are different for each one, it is possible the sentence for each could be stacked.

This means if he were to be found guilty and, for example, and was sentenced to a year in prison for each, those could be added together for a total of 28 years.

According to the indictment, in counts 4-31, Petersen had a plan to defraud AHCCCS and used false documents, knowing they were false, to steal from AHCCCS.

This is similar to count 2 but not quite the same.

Count 32: Petersen is charged with forgery, a class 4 felony, which has a sentencing range of probation to 3.75 years.

According to this count, he submitted a false residency requirement and he knew it was false when it was submitted.

Now that you know what Petersen is charged with and the possible sentences, you might be wondering what is next.

To put it bluntly, his worst nightmare.

It is highly unlikely the court will give him a public defender, which means he will have to spend an incredible amount of money to defend not only the Arizona allegations, but also the federal allegations of human smuggling, sale of a child and communications fraud.

Prison time is not the only consequence Petersen is facing.

Although he is an elected official and likely cannot be fired, if he is sent to jail or prison he cannot do his job and will have to be replaced.

Even if he is not convicted, it is unlikely Maricopa County voters would keep him in office at the next election.

In addition, he could lose all three of his bar licenses and be unable to practice law.

Although I paint a pretty bleak picture above, it is important to remember Petersen is innocent until proven guilty. An indictment only contains allegations.

The prosecutor will still need to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to 12 strangers.

Defense counsel might be able to prove the Marshallese women did not come here for adoption purposes; they came here for vacation and later decided to stay to have their babies.

Counsel might be able to convince the jury or the prosecutor that Petersen did not know the women were not Arizona residents; that he was duped.

Counsel has a tough job.

#LegallySpeaking, Petersen might be at the end of his political and legal career, but this indictment is just the beginning of what promises to be a long, painful court battle for him in Arizona and elsewhere.