Arizona official pleads not guilty in Arkansas in human trafficking case
PHOENIX – The Maricopa County elected official accused of human trafficking through an adoption scheme pleaded not guilty to federal charges in Arkansas on Tuesday.
After entering his plea in Fayetteville, Assessor Paul Petersen was released on $100,000 bond and ordered to wear an ankle monitor.
His trial in Arkansas on human smuggling and adoption fraud charges was set for Dec. 9.
He’d been in custody since his Oct. 8 arrest in Arizona following his indictment on 32 counts in three states, including sale of a child, conspiracy and fraud.
He also faces charges in Arizona and Utah.
The case spans three years and involves some 75 adoptions, authorities said, with about 30 adoptions pending.
Petersen is accused of illegally paying women from the Marshall Islands to have their babies in the United States and give them up for adoption. The women were crammed into homes owned or rented by Petersen, sometimes with little to no prenatal care, court documents say.
Petersen charged families $25,000 to $40,000 per adoption, prosecutors said.
He also is accused of claiming the women were Arizona residents on paperwork to get them state-funded health care coverage, bilking Arizona’s Medicaid system out of more than $800,000.
Petersen’s attorney has said prosecutors have miscast his client as a human smuggler.
A day before he entered the plea, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors voted to suspend Petersen without pay from his $77,000-a-year job for 120 days, the maximum allowable under state law.
He is allowed to appeal the suspension.
County auditors found hundreds documents related to Petersen’s adoption business on his county-issued computer, a fact cited by the board in its decision to suspend him for neglect of duty.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.