The assessor of Arizona's most populous county has been accused of human smuggling in an adoption fraud scheme that brought dozens of pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to the U.S. to give up their children for adoption, court records show.
Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen has been charged with human smuggling, sale of a child and communications fraud in Utah, and with fraud, conspiracy, theft and forgery in Arizona.
"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," Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes said in a statement.
The charges span about three years and involve nearly 70 adoptions in Utah and Arizona of babies. Additional adoptions are under investigation in Arkansas, authorities said.
Petersen's attorney, Matthew Long, defended his client's actions during a Tuesday court hearing in Phoenix as "proper business practices" and said they disagreed with the allegations.
Long also disputed the cash bond of $500,000, saying his client had strong ties to his hometown of Mesa, Arizona, and was not a flight risk. Long said Peterson has known for weeks that he's been under investigation.
Petersen worked with several employees based in the Marshall Islands to find pregnant women to give birth in the United States and match them with adoptive parents, Arizona Department of Public Safety detectives wrote in a probable cause statement to justify his arrest.
Petersen would pay for the women to travel to the U.S. days or months before giving birth and live in a home that he owned until delivering the baby, according to the records.
The babies were then adopted by U.S. parents who paid about $35,000, authorities said.
The women would then be flown back to the Marshall Islands or to another U.S. state, most commonly Arkansas, which has one the largest concentrations of Marshallese immigrants in the U.S., according to authorities in that state.
In Arizona, Assistant Attorney General Scott Blake said Petersen had previously been told his practice was illegal but he continued anyway. Authorities say Petersen's strong ties to the Marshalls island make him a flight risk.
They say Petersen employs Marshallese women in Arizona, Utah and Arkansas who help translate, buy food and cellphones for the mothers, apply for Medicaid benefits, transport women to medical appointments and notarize legal documents.
Authorities allege the scheme defrauded Arizona's Medicaid system of $800,000 because the women had no intention of remaining in the state when they applied for coverage.
Under a compact between the United States and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Marshallese citizens can enter the U.S. and work here without a visa, unless they're traveling for the purpose of adoption, according to authorities.
A woman named Lynwood Jennet was also charged in the indictment, Authorities allege she helped birth mothers apply for Medicaid benefits and was a point of contact for workers in the Marshall Islands.
A public defender representing Jennet did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Petersen is active in Republican politics. He won a 2014 special election to be Maricopa County's assessor and was re-elected in 2016, running unopposed both times. His office is responsible for determining the taxable value of 1.7 million properties in the nation's fourth-largest county.
Associated Press writers Lindsay Whitehurst in Salt Lake City, Astrid Galvan in Phoenix and Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona, contributed to this report.