Arizona’s Paul Petersen pleads guilty in Arkansas human smuggling case

Jun 24, 2020, 4:30 PM
Paul Petersen (Facebook Photo/Maricopa County Assessor's Office)...
Paul Petersen (Facebook Photo/Maricopa County Assessor's Office)
(Facebook Photo/Maricopa County Assessor's Office)

PHOENIX — All that’s left for disgraced former Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen’s illegal adoption case is the sentencing.

On Wednesday, Petersen pleaded guilty in Arkansas to a federal charge of conspiracy to commit human smuggling, completing the judgement portion of his three-state case.

Six days earlier, the former elected official pleaded guilty in Arizona on four state fraud charges related to his adoption scheme involving pregnant woman from the Marshall Islands.

A day later, he pleaded guilty in Utah to three state counts of human smuggling and one count of communications fraud.

Petersen faces up to 16.5 years in prison related to the Arizona case for fraudulently claiming the Marshallese women were Arizona residents to get them health care coverage, bilking the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System out of over half a million dollars.

He also was ordered to pay $650,000 to Arizona’s Medicaid system, $11,000 to a victim and $18,000 to the Arizona Attorney General’s Office for investigative costs.

He faces up to 15 years in prison and a $50,000 fine in the Utah portion of the case and 10 years and a $250,000 fine for the federal case in Arkansas.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said last week that Petersen will serve the federal sentence first, and the Utah and Arizona penalties will run at the same time.

Final sentencing hearings are pending.

“This plea agreement is one more step on a long road towards putting an end to the illegal adoption practices that have long plagued the Marshallese community in our district,” David Clay Fowlkes, the acting U.S. attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, said in a statement.

Prosecutors say Petersen illegally paid women from the Pacific island nation to come to the United States to give up their babies in at least 70 adoption cases over three years. Citizens of the Marshall Islands have been prohibited from traveling to the U.S. for adoption purposes since 2003.

He was originally arrested Oct. 8, 2019, on 32 charges in Arizona, 19 in Arkansas and 11 in Utah. All remaining charges were dismissed as part of his plea deals in each state.

The Arizona charges Petersen pleaded guilty to included two from the original indictment and two uncovered during further investigation.

Petersen, who facilitated adoptions through his private law practice based in Mesa, fought to keep his $77,000-a-year elected position until he resigned Jan. 7.

The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors suspended Peterson for 120 days on Oct. 28, but he stepped down before the suspension was lifted.

On Feb. 14, the board picked Gilbert Councilman Eddie Cook to serve out the remainder of Petersen’s term, which runs through this year.

The Maricopa County assessor is responsible for determining the value of metro Phoenix properties for tax purposes.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Arizona’s Paul Petersen pleads guilty in Arkansas human smuggling case