PHOENIX – An Arizona politician ran an adoption fraud scheme that promised pregnant women thousands of dollars to lure them from a Pacific Island nation to the U.S., where they were crammed into houses to wait to give birth, sometimes with little to no prenatal care in what prosecutors called a human smuggling case.
Paul Petersen, the assessor of Arizona's most populous county, was charged in Utah, Arizona and Arkansas with counts including human smuggling, sale of a child, fraud, forgery and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
The charges span about three years and involve some 75 adoptions. Investigators also found eight pregnant women from the Marshall Islands in raids of his properties outside Phoenix, and several more are waiting to give birth in Utah, authorities said.
“The commoditization of children is simply evil,” said Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes.
The adoptive parents are considered victims along with the birth mothers, and no completed adoptions will be undone, authorities said.
Petersen's attorney, Matthew Long, defended his client's actions during a court hearing in Phoenix as “proper business practices” and said they disagreed with the allegations.
Petersen served a two-year mission in the Marshall Islands for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Reyes said. He was later recruited by an international adoption agency while in law school because of his fluency in Marshallese, according to a 2013 Phoenix Business Journal story.
Prosecutors say Petersen used associates there to recruit pregnant women by offering many of them $10,000 each to give up their babies for adoption. Petersen would pay for the women to travel to the U.S. days or months before giving birth and live in a home that he owned until delivering the baby, according to the court records.
The expecting mothers were often crowded in the homes, with Marshallese women Petersen employed helping with things like translation, transportation, legal documents and applications for Medicaid benefits, prosecutors said.
Women got little to no prenatal care in Utah, and in one house slept on mattresses laid on bare floors in what one shocked adoptive family described as a “baby mill,” according court documents.