Official pleads guilty to human smuggling after paying women from country where he previously served mission to give up babies

Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen leaves court in Salt Lake City, Nov. 15, 2019. He resigned from his elected position on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020, months after being charged with running a human smuggling operation that paid pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to give up their babies in the U.S. | Associated Press file photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A former Arizona politician pleaded guilty in Utah on Friday to human smuggling and other charges in an illegal adoption scheme that stretched across three states and involved women from the Marshall Islands.

Paul Petersen, a Republican who served county assessor in metro Phoenix, has also struck a plea agreement with Arizona prosecutors on state Medicaid-fraud charges. He’s expected to enter a similar plea in Arkansas next week.

Petersen was charged with illegally paying women from the Pacific island nation to come to the United States to give up their babies in at least 70 adoption cases in Arizona, Utah and Arkansas over three years.

The women brought to Utah to give birth received little or no prenatal care and their passports were taken while they were in the U.S. to assert control over them, authorities said.

He pleaded guilty in Utah to three counts of human smuggling and one count of communications fraud, all felonies.

“Today, Utah is safer. The rest of America and our friends in the Marshall Islands are safer,” Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said in a statement. Marshall Islands citizens have been prohibited from traveling to the U.S. for adoption purposes since 2003.

Petersen faces up to 15 years in prison, a $50,000 fine and a requirement to shut down his adoption practice in Utah. He is expected to plead guilty to a federal charge of harboring aliens for financial gain in Arkansas, which carries up to 10 years in federal prison.

He’ll serve the federal sentence first, and the Utah and Arizona penalties will run at the same time, Reyes said.

Petersen’s attorneys have previously said he ran a legal adoption practice and was unfairly vilified. He said little during his plea hearing Friday.

A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Petersen completed a proselytizing mission in the Marshall Islands, a collection of atolls and islands in the eastern Pacific.

Petersen’s plea in Arizona acknowledges he helped get state-funded health care for adoptive mothers, even though he knew the women didn’t live in Arizona. Officials have said 28 Marshallese women gave birth in the Phoenix area as part of the scheme, with Petersen helping to secure $800,000 in state-funded health care expenses.

Written by LINDSAY WHITEHURST, Associated Press.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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