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Attorney in Marshallese adoption scheme to head to prison

by Doug Thompson | January 20, 2021 at 11:01 a.m.
Paul Petersen

An attorney convicted in an illegal adoption scheme in Arkansas and two other states states involving pregnant women from the Marshall Islands must report to prison by midday today to begin serving the first of his sentences.

Paul Petersen, a Republican who served as Maricopa County, Arizona assessor for six years and also worked as an adoption attorney, was sentenced to six years after pleading guilty in federal court in Arkansas to conspiring to commit human smuggling.

Petersen is awaiting sentencing in state courts in Arizona for fraud convictions and in Utah for human smuggling and other convictions. Sentencing dates have not yet been set for the cases from those states.

Prosecutors have said Petersen illegally paid women from the Pacific island nation to come to the U.S. to give up their babies in at least 70 adoptions cases in Arizona, Utah and Arkansas. Marshall Islands citizens have been prohibited from traveling to the U.S. for adoption purposes since 2003.

Kurt Altman, Petersen's attorney, did not immediately respond to phone and email messages seeking comment on behalf of his client.

Petersen will serve his sentence from Arkansas at a federal prison near El Paso, Texas.

Investigators estimated he 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. Those cases were dealt with under sealed records.

Petersen's Arkansas law firm kept as many as 12 pregnant women at a time in a single-family home in Springdale as part of his adoption practice, according to court documents. As many as 10 at a time lived at 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 opened a branch of his law firm in Fayetteville in 2014, according to court records.

The judge gave him two years longer in prison than sentencing guidelines recommended, describing Petersen's adoption practice as a "criminal livelihood" and saying Petersen knowingly made false statements to immigration officials and state courts in carrying out the scheme.

Petersen has appealed the punishment.

In Arizona, he pleaded guilty to fraud charges for submitting false applications to Arizona's Medicaid system so the birth mothers could receive state-funded health coverage – even though he knew they didn't live in the state -- and for providing documents to a county juvenile court that contained false information.

Earlier in his life, Petersen, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christs of Latter-day Saints, had completed a proselytizing mission in the Marshall Islands, a collection of atolls and islands in the eastern Pacific, where he became fluent in the Marshallese language.

He quit his elected job as Maricopa County's assessor last year amid pressure from other county officials to resign.

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