PHOENIX - News reports from Arkansas state that Paul Petersen, a man who once served as Maricopa County's Assessor, has been sentenced in connection with his involvement in an illegal adoption scheme involving women from the Marshall Island in the Pacific.
According to a statement released by the U.S. Attorney's office with the Western District of Arkansas, Petersen has been sentenced to 74 months in prison. Reports from Fort Smith/Fayetteville, Ark. FOX affiliate KFTA-TV state that Petersen will serve the sentence at a facility nearest to his home in Mesa.
Petersen pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit human smuggling in June 2020 in Arkansas, and also pleaded guilty to smuggling and fraud charges in Arizona and Utah during the same month.
According to a Nov. 24 report by the Associated Press, Federal prosecutors in Arkansas sought a 10-year prison sentence for Petersen. He will reportedly be sentenced on January 22 and 20 for related convictions in Arizona and Utah, respectively. Prosecutors and defense lawyers reportedly have an agreement for Petersen to serve all three sentences at once.
Petersen was arrested on Oct. 8, 2019. Authorities 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 adoptions cases in Arizona, Utah and Arkansas. Such adoptions between the U.S. and Marshall Islands are reportedly banned by an agreement between the two countries, due to a long history of adoption-related exploitation in the Pacific island nation.
In particular, authorities accuse Petersen of running a scheme in which birth mothers had their passports taken to keep them from leaving the United States, and were threatened with arrest if they tried to back out of adoptions. The women were poor, didn’t speak English and were living 6,000 miles from home.
“These circumstances prevented their escape as securely as if they were chained to a wall,” prosecutors wrote, noting four birth mothers expressed doubts about their adoptions but went forward with them anyway because the women weren’t allowed to return home.
Birth mothers were reportedly paid far less than promised, and the money Petersen made helped pay for his lavish lifestyle, including expensive trips, luxury cars and multiple residences, prosecutors said.
"During the scheme, the defendant lied to state court judges, falsified records, encouraged others to lie during court proceedings, and manipulated birth mothers into consenting to adoptions they did not fully understand," prosecutors wrote.
Besides Petersen, another woman, identified as 46-year-old Lynwood Jennet, was also accused of having involvement with the scheme. She pleaded guilty to fraud and conspiracy, as part of a plea agreement in December 2019.
According to initial reports of Petersen's arrest by FOX 10, Petersen is described on his law office website as having been a private adoption attorney for over 15 years. He won an election as the Maricopa County Assessor in 2014, and was the only candidate for the position in the 2016 election.
In the aftermath of Petersen's arrest, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors voted to suspend Petersen as the county's Assessor. He was not removed from office permanently, as the Board of Supervisors did not have the authority to do so. Petersen resigned as the county's Assessor on Jan. 7, 2020.
In addition to his 74-month prison sentence, as imposed by the judge in Arkansas, federal officials say Petersen will be required to take part in a court alcohol program, and pay a $100,000 fine. When he is released, federal officials say Petersen will serve three years of supervised release.