A former Arizona politician, who is a Republican, was caught in a scheme to literally sell babies to the highest bidder.
Paul Petersen, who served a county assessor in metro Phoenix until he resigned from his job in January, has pleaded guilty to human smuggling and other charges, The Daily Mail reported.
The operation stretched across three states and involved an illegal adoption scheme that involved bringing pregnant women into the United States illegally from the Marshall Islands.
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 US 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.
“This plea agreement is one more step on a long road towards putting an end to the illegal adoption practices that have long plagued the Marshallese community in our district,” David Clay Fowlkes, the acting United States attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, said, The New York Times reported.
The attorney for Petersen, Kurt M. Altman, said that his client did not mistreat the women, as if that is some type of defense, and insists that he learned his lesson.
“I think the evidence shows none of these ladies were mistreated,” the attorney said in defense of his client. And he said that Petersen was not aware at the time that the adoptions were not proper. “I think he realizes now,” the attorney said.
The adoptions that were facilitated by Petersen’s scheme will not be affected by his guilty plea because the parents “had no idea about the fraudulent nature” of the adoptions.
The parents of the children and the adoptive parents were described as being “very vulnerable victims,” Fowlkes said.
Petersen paid four pregnant women from the Marshall Islands who did not have Visas to come to the United States illegally, give birth and then have him facilitate the adoptions, The Times reported.
Federal prosecutors cited paperwork that Mr. Petersen had filed in four separate adoptions that took place in Arkansas in 2014 and 2015. In those documents, Mr. Petersen said he was paid as much as $30,000 for his work as a “legal facilitator” while the birth mothers were paid between $7,300 and $10,800 officials said.
Mr. Petersen also declared in those records that in three of those adoptions, there was an average of $13,000 in expenses, labeled “assistants and fee,” officials said.
Petersen collected tens of thousands in fees to facilitate the adoptions as well as to pay for fees and travel expenses for the adoptive and birth parents.
He was first elected assessor in Maricopa County in the 2014 election and secured a re-election in 2016. He was arrested in October 2019 and resigned from his job in January of 2020.