ABC4 Utah

Former Arizona official pleads guilty to Utah adoption scam

Paul Petersen, center, an Arizona elected official accused of running a multi-state adoption scheme, leaves court following an initial appearance on charges filed in the state Friday, Nov. 15, 2019, in Salt Lake City. Prosecutors in three states say Petersen brought pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to the United States and paid them to give up their babies for adoption. He's pleaded not guilty. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4 News) – A man convicted in Arizona on Thursday on felony charges in relation to a multi-state adoption scam pleaded guilty to his Utah charges on Friday.

Paul Petersen, who was the Maricopa County Arizona Assessor at the time of his arrest, pleaded guilty in Utah’s Third District Court to three counts of human smuggling and one count of communications fraud in a case that extended to Arizona, Arkansas and the Marshall Islands. 

RELATED: Arizona official charged in multi-state adoption scam, including Utah, booked into Arkansas jail

Utah Attorney’s General Sean Reyes made the announcement duing a press conference on Friday.

“Today, Utah is safer. The rest of America and our friends in the Marshall Islands are safer. Today, justice begins to be served as Mr. Petersen will be held accountable for his crimes while his many victims are given some closure in the aftermath of this tragedy,” said Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes. “We’ve sent a clear message. Whether you are committing fraud, human smuggling, trafficking or any related crimes, we will aggressively protect Utahns and come after you.”

Reyes said his office is asking for the maximum sentence to each of these charges which includes up to 15 years in prison, a $50,000 fine, forfeiting his law license and future ability to practice or facilitate adoptions in Utah. 

Petersen pleaded guilty Thursday to Medicaid Fraud-related crimes in Arizona and will serve between three and twelve years in prison and he is expected to plead guilty to harboring aliens for financial gain (a federal crime) in Arkansas and could serve up to ten years in federal prison. 

He will serve the federal sentence first and the sentences will run concurrently.
“Convicting Paul Petersen of four serious felony charges is a just and encouraging resolution of the state’s criminal case,” said Dan Strong, Assistant Attorney General and SECURE Section Director. “Between the sentences in all three states, we are confident Petersen will serve a substantial prison term—a stronger result than any jurisdiction could likely have achieved individually. We are especially proud to have achieved this outcome without putting the victims in this case through a difficult trial that would have involved wrenching testimony on sensitive family issues. We hope this conviction and sentence gives these victims some closure, and that it will deter Petersen and others like him from flouting international law, exploiting vulnerable mothers, and defrauding parents seeking to adopt.”
During his guilty plea, Petersen admitted he transported Marshallese women into the United States to facilitate adoptions. Petersen said he omitted information to the American couples seeking to adopt these children to obtain the adoption payments.

RELATED: Attorney: Man charged in adoption case ‘made happy families’

The AG’s office first received information on the case when a tip came through their human trafficking tip line from concerned hospital workers in 2017. 

During the course of the investigation, it was discovered that Petersen recruited, transported, and paid more than 40 pregnant Marshallese women to place their babies for adoption in the U.S. 

RELATED: Elected official quits amid charges he paid women to give up babies