PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) – Former Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen pleaded guilty to three felony counts of fraudulent schemes and a charge of forgery Thursday morning in an adoption fraud scheme he was accused of running.
Prosecutors said he brought women from the Marshall Islands to the U.S. to give birth and then charged families to adopt the babies. Petersen faces up to 16.5 years in prison and fines up to $650,000.
Petersen was not taken into custody after Thursday's hearing because of pending cases in Utah and federal court in Arkansas. He is expected to plead guilty in those states, as well, according to his lawyer.
Petersen first pleaded not guilty to the Arizona charges in early November. He was still the Maricopa County assessor at the time, although the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to suspend him. He resigned “reluctantly” on Jan. 7.
Petersen was arrested in October 2019 in connection with the adoption fraud allegations. He was facing charges human smuggling, sale of a child, fraud, forgery and conspiracy to commit money laundering in Arizona, Arkansas and Utah. Public court documents showed that Petersen had been involved in adoptions of Marshallese babies as far back as 2005, well before he was appointed to the position of county assessor in 2013. Petersen won a special election in 2014 and was re-elected to the office in 2016.
An audit of Petersen’s county office done by the Maricopa County Internal Audit Department showed that just 5% of his computer files dated after he became the assessor were related to county business.