An Arizona grand jury indicted Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen for multiple counts of fraud relating to his black market adoption business.
In a press conference on Wednesday, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich said Petersen stands accused of illegally arranging travel for 29 pregnant women from the Marshall Islands from November 2015 to May 2019 with the intention of adopting out their babies for a fee.
Petersen is also accused of falsely representing the women as Arizona residents to bilk $800,000 of Arizona tax dollars to pay for their health care costs.
"What Petersen is doing is frankly an affront to Arizona taxpayers,” Brnovich said. "It’s unfair to the adoptive parents and it’s also unfair to the hardworking Arizona taxpayer."
Brnovich stressed that parents who used Petersen's services to adopt children are not accused of wrongdoing.
"That’s one of the things we want to be clear on," Brnovich said. "I want to put at ease those families. The people who adopted these children are not the focus of the investigation."
Arizona Department of Safety Director Frank Milstead, also speaking at the press conference, said state police on Tuesday evening found eight pregnant Marshallese women at an Arizona house owned by Petersen. Milstead said he did not know where the women are located.
He also said that it is not believed that any of the women committed any crimes.
Petersen also faces human trafficking charges in Utah for his alleged scheme, which involved paying for the travel of pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to the United States to give birth. In some cases, according to the indictment, the women returned to the Marshall Islands shortly after giving birth. He stands accused of bring over at least 40 Marshallese women to Utah.
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said in a statement Tuesday: “While Mr. Petersen is entitled to a presumption of innocence, our investigation uncovered evidence that he has committed horrible crimes. Petersen’s illegal adoption scheme exploited highly vulnerable groups in two countries — the birth mothers and families in the Marshall Islands and the adoptive parents here in Utah.”
Petersen and a fixer, Lynwood Jennet, face 32 felonies in Arizona, including a count each of conspiracy, theft, and forgery. They also each face 29 counts of fraud.
During the press conference Brnovich said Jennet is believed to be of Marshallese origin.
In several cases, the indictment alleges, Petersen and Jennet falsely represented pregnant Marshallese women as Arizona residents to apply for Medicaid benefits on their behalf.
Department of Safety officers raided Petersen's home and office Tuesday night, according to media reports.
The nonprofit news organization Honolulu Civil Beat a year ago published an extensive investigation of Petersen's business, reporting that his adoptions likely violated an international treaty prohibiting Marshallese women from traveling to the U.S. for the purpose of giving birth.
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The treaty was put in place about two decades ago during a boom of adoptions of Marshallese babies in the United States. Authorities from both countries signed the treaty to prevent exploitation of Marshallese women.
According to Civil Beat, some Marshallese women who gave up babies to American parents did not realize that they would never see their children again.
Among Civil Beat's other findings: Petersen owns a house in Salt Lake City where up to 10 Marshallese women stay at a time. Civil Beat also found that lawyers who facilitate adoptions of babies from Marshallese women to American parents stand to make thousands of dollars per transaction. Petersen, who makes $76,606 a year as County Assessor, owns three homes in Arizona and the house in Utah used for lodging Marshallese mothers. Many of Petersen's customers are Mormon.
Petersen, a Republican, was appointed as Maricopa County Assessor in 2013. Voters elected to keep him in the seat in 2016.