Arizona official charged with human smuggling in adoption fraud

Paul Petersen is seen in an image taken from a YouTube promotional video found on the website of his legal practice.  YouTube /

Phoenix, Arizona — The assessor of Arizona’s largest county has been indicted in connection with 11 felony offenses, including human smuggling, sale of a child and communications fraud in an adoption fraud scheme, authorities said.

The Arizona Attorney General’s Office confirmed the 32-count federal indictment Tuesday against Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen for conspiracy, theft, forgery, and 29 counts of fraudulent schemes, The Arizona Republic reported Tuesday.

Petersen has for years run an adoption law practice in Mesa that involves bringing women from the Marshall Islands to the U.S. to give birth. Their babies are then adopted by U.S. parents, authorities said. Petersen charged $40,000 per adoption, according to his website.

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Petersen illegally obtained services from Arizona’s Medicaid system for the women by falsely claiming they are Arizona residents, the indictment said. He also violated U.S. law prohibiting citizens of the Marshall Islands from traveling to the U.S. for the purpose of adoption, the indictment said.

“Petersen is alleged to have run an illegal adoption scheme where he recruited, transported, and offered payment to pregnant Marshallese women to give their babies up for adoption in the United States,” according to a statement from the office of Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes.

Petersen is accused of transporting more than 40 pregnant Marshall Islands women into Utah during the past three years as part of the scheme, the statement said. Petersen’s bio on his law firm’s website boasts of his “passion in assisting Marshallese birth families with their adoption plans.”

“While Mr. Petersen is entitled to a presumption of innocence, our investigation uncovered evidence that he has committed horrible crimes,” Reyes said in the statement. “Petersen’s illegal adoption scheme exploited highly vulnerable groups in two countries — the birth mothers and families in the Marshall Islands and the adoptive parents here in Utah.”

Lynwood Jennet was also named in the indictment. Additional information about Jennet was not immediately available.

Petersen is in his second term as assessor following a special election victory in 2014 and re-election in 2016. He served nearly eight years as the assessor’s office representative to the Arizona Legislature and as the agency’s public information officer.

The Arizona Department of Public Safety, Homeland Security Investigations and the Utah Attorney General’s Office were involved in the arrest, officials said.

An investigation last year by the Hawaii news website Honolulu Civil Beat last year questioned the legality of adoptions Petersen administers through his work as a private adoption attorney.

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