Woman accused of aiding Petersen pleads guilty to fraud in Arizona
PHOENIX – The woman accused of assisting Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen in an alleged multistate human trafficking scheme reached a plea agreement on Arizona conspiracy and fraud charges Thursday, authorities said.
Lynwood Jennet pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraudulent schemes and artifices, two counts of theft and failure to file a tax return.
As part of the deal, she agreed to cooperate with the state’s prosecution and testify against Petersen if necessary, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich told KTAR News 92.3 FM.
Jennet, 46, faces a sentence of two to four years in prison and was ordered to pay more than $870,000 in restitution to the state entities she admitted defrauding.
“I think it’s another indication of how serious our office is when it comes to holding those accountable that rip off Arizona’s taxpayers,” Brnovich said.
Petersen and Jennet have been accused of recruiting, transporting and offering to pay dozens of pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to adopt out their babies in the United States. Marshall Islands citizens have been prohibited from traveling to the U.S. for adoption purposes since 2003.
Arizona authorities charged the pair of falsely claiming the women were state residents so they could receive health care coverage, bilking the state’s Medicaid system out of more than $800,000.
In her plea agreement, Jennet, who is Marshallese, admitted to coordinating aspects of the adoptions and helping the mothers fraudulently apply for Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System benefits, Brnovich said.
The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors suspended Petersen from his $77,000-a-year position after his arrest in October, citing neglect of duty. A board spokesman said Thursday that a ruling on Petersen’s appeal of the suspension, which was heard Dec. 11, won’t be made before Christmas.
The board is waiting for a final investigative report into Petersen’s handling of his official duties before deciding whether to end the 120-day unpaid suspension, the spokesman said.
The suspension, which was handed down Oct. 28, is the longest allowable under state law. The board doesn’t have the authority to remove Petersen from his elected office.
One of Petersen’s attorneys has said his client is willing to resign in exchange for what he considers an acceptable settlement, but the board has refused any offer that includes a portion of the assessor’s salary.
Petersen has entered a not guilty plea to 32 charges in Arizona related to the alleged benefits fraud.
The attorney defending Petersen on the Arizona charges declined to say what his client’s defense would be.
He’s also pleaded not guilty to 19 federal charges in Arkansas related to the alleged baby-selling scheme. He also faces 11 related charges in Utah but has not yet entered a plea there.
Petersen’s legal team has made the case that he ran a legal adoption practice and has been unfairly vilified before his side of the story can come out.
KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Peter Samore and The Associated Press contributed to this report.