Ex-politician in prison for adoption scheme loses appeal

In this file photo, then-Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen, right, and his attorney, Kurt Altman, leave a court hearing in Phoenix, Ariz., Nov. 5, 2019 | Associated Press file photo by Jacques Billeaud, St. George News

PHOENIX (AP) — A former Arizona politician in prison for running an illegal adoption scheme in three states involving women from the Marshall Islands has lost an appeal of one of his sentences.

This undated photo shows County Assessor Paul Petersen, who has been indicted in an adoption fraud case. Petersen is accused of arranging for dozens of pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to come to the U.S. to give their children up for adoption. Utah also has charged him with 11 felony counts, including human smuggling, sale of a child and communications fraud. | Photo courtesy of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office via The Associated Press, St. George News

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday upheld a six-year sentence and $100,000 fine given in Arkansas to Paul Petersen, a Republican who served as metro Phoenix’s assessor for six years and also worked as an adoption attorney.

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.

In all, Petersen was sentenced to serve 11 years in prison in Arizona and Arkansas. Additionally, he was sentenced to one to 15 years in prison for a conviction in Utah, where a parole board ultimately decides how long a person serves. The Utah punishment will be served at the same time as his other sentences.

The appeals court rejected the argument that Petersen’s sentence, which was two years longer than sentencing guidelines had recommended, was unreasonable and said the sentencing judge made it clear why he considered Petersen to be unique from others who had received shorter punishments for similar offenses in other cases.

“Petersen arranged the sale of infants for personal profit; he did so for many years and in three states; he did so while serving as a public official; his crime involved a significant fraudulent scheme against the state of Arizona; he repeatedly lied and instructed others to do so; and he fully knew the illegality of his conduct. Petersen does not show the district court committed a clear error of judgment here,” the appeals court wrote.

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

Petersen argued the $100,000 fine was unreasonable because the judge improperly decided Petersen’s divorce was a sham to conceal assets and ignored a divorce decree indicating he would have no such access to his ex-wife’s assets.

“Even if this finding was erroneous, the district court did not clearly err in alternatively imposing a fine based on Petersen’s future ability to pay because of his prior legal education and employment,” the appeals court wrote.

Petersen’s attorney, Kurt Altman, didn’t return phone and email messages seeking comment on the appeals court ruling.

Petersen received his six-year federal sentence in Arkansas for conspiring to smuggle people. He also was given another five years for fraud convictions in Arizona for submitting false applications to the state’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.

Petersen has said he has since paid back $670,000 in health care costs to the state of more than $800,000 that prosecutors cited in his indictment.

He also pleaded guilty to human smuggling and fraud in Utah.

Earlier in his life, Petersen, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ 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.

Petersen quit his elected job as Maricopa County’s assessor in January 2020 amid pressure from other county officials to resign.

He has already served nearly one year in prison.

Written by JACQUES BILLEAUD, Associated Press.


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