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Federal Judge Sentences Ex-Arizona Official For 'Baby-Selling Enterprise'

Paul Petersen, a lawyer and former Arizona public official, was sentenced to six years in federal prison for his role in orchestrating an illegal adoption scheme involving pregnant women from the Marshall Islands.
Rick Bowmer
Paul Petersen, a lawyer and former Arizona public official, was sentenced to six years in federal prison for his role in orchestrating an illegal adoption scheme involving pregnant women from the Marshall Islands.

Updated 2:51 p.m. ET

An Arkansas federal judge sentenced a former public official in Arizona to six years in prison for his role in orchestrating a human smuggling scheme that involved luring dozens of pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to the United States so he could profit from their newborn babies.

Paul Petersen, who served as Maricopa County, Ariz., assessor until his resignation earlier this year, was sentenced to 72 months in prison for conspiracy to bring people into the country illegally for commercial advantage and private financial gain. He pleaded guilty in June.

"He subverted what should be a joyous time for everyone into a baby-selling enterprise," said U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks during Petersen's virtual sentencing hearing on Tuesday, The Arizona Republic reported.

"The conduct Mr. Petersen engaged in violates public policy. We don't sell babies. That is the public policy of the United States of America," Brooks said.

Once Petersen's prison sentence ends, he must complete three years supervised release. Judge Brooks of the Western District of Arkansas also ordered him to pay a fine of $105,100, according to a U.S. Justice Department statementon Tuesday.

The Justice Department notes that Petersen was licensed to practice law in Arizona, Arkansas and Utah. Earlier this year, he pleaded guilty to similar state charges in Utah and in Arizona.

"The defendant in this case violated the laws of three states and two countries during the course of his criminal scheme," First Assistant U.S. Attorney David Clay Fowlkes for the Western District of Arkansas said in a statement.

Federal officials said Petersen "exploited a legal loophole" to orchestrate his adoption scheme. He is also accused of falsifying court records, encouraging others to give false statements during court proceedings and manipulating "birth mothers into consenting to adoptions they did not fully understand," according to the Justice Department.

Petersen read a statement during the hearing, saying he "tried to make happy families," according to the Republic.

"To any (birth mother) that felt misled, slighted, disregarded, disrespected or even coerced, I say, 'I'm sorry,' " Petersen said, expressing sorrow that he would now be away from his own children.

"I tried to make happy families and in so doing ruined my own," Petersen said.

Investigators determined Petersen arranged travel for several pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to Arkansas with the promise that families living in the U.S. would adopt their children.

According to an international compact, Marshall Islands citizens are permitted to freely enter the U.S. and work in the country. However, the agreement bars Marshallese citizens from entering the U.S. if the primary purpose for their travel is adoption.

Additionally, airline records uncovered during the Justice Department investigation show at least 27 adoptions in Arizona, Arkansas and Utah in which Petersen paid for women to travel to the U.S. in violation of the Immigration and Nationality Act, a Justice Department spokesperson told NPR.

Previous charging documents in Utah said between Aug. 1, 2016, and Aug 2, 2019, Petersen "transported or procured the transportation" of more than 40 Marshallese women the state.

The Marshall Islands, located northeast of Papua New Guinea, was previously under administrative control of the United States and gained full independence in 1986.

As NPR reported last year, Petersen lured the pregnant women to the U.S. with payments of $10,000, according to court documents. A now-defunct website for Petersen's firm advertised that for U.S.-based families, he charged a fee of $30,000 to $40,000 for completing the adoption from an expecting Marshallese mother.

The Republic reported that Petersen is scheduled for sentencing in both Utah and Arizona next month.

He faces up to 15 years in Utah and about 16.5 years in Arizona, the newspaper said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brakkton Booker is a National Desk reporter based in Washington, DC.