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Ex-adoption lawyer appeals six years, cites sentencing error

by JACQUES BILLEAUD THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | February 21, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

PHOENIX — A former Arizona politician who acknowledged running an illegal adoption scheme in three states, including Arkansas, involving birth mothers from the Marshall Islands has asked an appeals court to throw out his six-year prison sentence.

Attorneys for Paul Petersen argue a judge double-counted factors in the case that increased the severity of Petersen’s punishment, such as concluding he abused his position as an adoption attorney.

Petersen, a Republican who served as Maricopa County’s assessor for six years and operated an adoption practice on the side, is contesting the first of three sentences he’ll receive for arranging adoptions prohibited by an international compact.

A month ago, he started serving the sentence for a federal conviction in Arkansas for conspiring to smuggle humans. He is to be sentenced next month on convictions for fraud in Arizona and for human smuggling in Utah.

Investigators estimated Petersen handled a minimum of 30 Marshallese adoptions a year in Northwest Arkansas. His October 2019 indictment left 19 birth mothers and the prospective adoptive parents in legal limbo in Washington County Circuit Court.

Petersen’s Arkansas law firm kept as many as 12 pregnant women at a time in a single-family home in Spring-dale as part of his adoption practice, according to court documents. As many as 10 at a time lived in another home in De Queen, according to statements made at Petersen’s plea hearing.

Northwest Arkansas has the largest concentration of Marshallese in the United States, other than Hawaii, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Petersen was given a prison term in the Arkansas case two years longer than sentencing recommendations had called for after a judge concluded Petersen misled or instructed others to lie to courts in adoptions that wouldn’t have been approved had the truth been told to them.

In an appellate brief filed Tuesday, his attorney, Kurt Altman, said his client’s sentencing range should have been between three and nearly four years in prison, arguing Petersen’s actions weren’t intended to do harm and that his punishment was more severe than that given to others convicted of the same crime.

Charlie Robbins, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in western Arkansas, which prosecuted Petersen, declined to comment on the appeal.

Judge Timothy Brooks, who presided over the Arkansas case, said at sentencing in December that Petersen turned what should be joyous adoption occasions into “a baby-selling enterprise” and described Petersen’s adoption practice as a “criminal livelihood.”

The judge also said Petersen knowingly made false statements to immigration officials and state courts in carrying out the scheme, and ripped off taxpayers at the same time he was elected to serve them. Brooks flatly rejected Petersen’s claims he initially thought he was acting within the bounds of the law but later realized what he was doing was illegal.

Petersen is to be sentenced on March 19 in Phoenix for submitting false applications to Arizona’s Medicaid system.

His sentencing in Utah on human smuggling convictions is set for March 22.

Petersen’s October 2019 indictment left 19 birth mothers and the prospective adoptive parents in legal limbo in Washington County Circuit Court.


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