SALT LAKE CITY – A former Arizona politician could serve up to 15 years in prison for operating an illegal adoption scheme involving women from the Marshall Islands after he was given his third sentence Wednesday in Utah.
Paul Petersen had already been ordered to serve 11 years in prison in Arizona and Arkansas.
Utah Judge Linda M. Jones sentenced him to 1-15 years under Utah's judicial rules that set a sentencing range and leave it up to the parole board to decide now long a person actually serves. She said the Utah sentence will run concurrently with the other prison time, which means Petersen could be done with his Utah prison time by the time he completes his other sentences or have up to four more years.
Petersen, a Republican who was Maricopa County’s assessor for six years, illegally paid women from the Pacific island nation to give up their babies in at least 70 adoption cases in Arizona, Arkansas and Utah, authorities say.
Citizens of the Marshall Islands have been prohibited from traveling to the United States for adoption purposes since 2003.
In the scheme, pregnant women were recruited and promised $10,000 in exchange for agreeing to give up their babies in adoption to families in the United States, Utah Assistant Attorney General Daniel Strong said. The women often didn’t get that full amount and were deprived of proper prenatal care and crammed into houses where some had to sleep on the floor, he said.
Adoptive families paid about $40,000 per adoption only to find they were ensnarled in an unethical and illegal scheme, Strong said.
“It casts a shadow, a pall of uncertainty and some ugliness on these adoptions that these families should not have to deal with,” he said.
Dan Christensen, who along with his wife adopted a child from Petersen's agency, called Petersen's actions disturbing and said it left them feeling betrayed, guilty and embarrassed. Their son has some health issues that their doctor attributes to a lack of proper prenatal care, he said.
“We could not believe that we had been so deceived,” Christensen said. “This was supposed to be such a happy, joyful time for us to add another member to our family through the miracle of adoption. Instead, it was so stressful.”
As he had done previously in court proceedings in the other states, Petersen, 45, apologized for his actions. He appeared by video from prison wearing an orange jumpsuit.
“As a former adoption practitioner, I'm ashamed that they feel that way about something that should be really special to them," Petersen said. “I've apologized for that in the past, and I'm going to do it again right now.”
Petersen has four children under 12 years old. He is now divorced from his wife.
“There is nothing more you can do to me your honor today that I can't already do to myself. I'm in prison now. My family is broken. I haven’t seen my kids in three months, and I’m not sure when I will again,” said Petersen, fighting back tears. “They are not watching this, but I apologize to them that I'm going to be gone from their lives.”
Petersen pleaded guilty last year to three counts of human smuggling and one count of communications fraud in Utah.
In March, he was ordered to serve five years for defrauding Arizona’s Medicaid system in a scam to get taxpayer-funded health coverage for the birth mothers, even though he knew they didn’t live in the state. His five-year Arizona punishment is to be served after he completes his six-year federal sentence for conspiring to smuggle people in Arkansas.
Petersen is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and earlier in his life completed a proselytizing mission in the Marshall Islands, a collection of atolls and islands in the eastern Pacific. He became fluent in the Marshallese language.
After the allegations of adoption fraud emerged, Petersen kept working as the assessor for the most populous Arizona county for nearly three months amid heavy pressure to resign — and he did so in January 2020. He was responsible for determining property values in the county that includes Phoenix.
His Utah attorney, Scott Williams, argued in court and in a letter submitted to the judge earlier this week that Petersen accepts responsibility but has been unfairly portrayed as a villain by prosecutors.
Petersen has said he helped people with hundreds of legal adoptions after he discovered a niche locating homes for vulnerable children from the Marshall Islands and helping needy mothers who wanted a more stable family life for their children.
“His family has been destroyed, and he is professionally and financially obliterated. His four children will not see their father in the free world before they are off to college. Even after he is released from incarceration he will be supervised, and his ability to regain any professional or personal life will be completely marginalized,” Williams wrote. “One would hope that the government’s thirst for vengeance against Paul D. Petersen has now finally been sated.”