Former Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen loses appeal in illegal adoption case
PHOENIX (AP) — A former Arizona politician in prison for running an illegal adoption scheme in three states involving women from the Marshall Islands has lost an appeal of one of his sentences.
The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday, Jan. 10, upheld a six-year sentence and $100,000 fine given in Arkansas to Paul Petersen, a Republican who served as metro Phoenix’s assessor for six years and also worked as an adoption attorney.
Prosecutors have said Petersen illegally paid women from the Pacific island nation to come to the U.S. to give up their babies in at least 70 adoption cases in Arizona, Utah and Arkansas. Marshall Islands citizens have been prohibited from traveling to the U.S. for adoption purposes since 2003.
In all, Petersen was sentenced to serve 11 years in prison in Arizona and Arkansas. Additionally, he was sentenced to one to 15 years in prison for a conviction in Utah, where a parole board ultimately decides how long a person serves. The Utah punishment will be served at the same time as his other sentences.
The appeals court rejected the argument that Petersen’s sentence, which was two years longer than sentencing guidelines had recommended, was unreasonable and said the sentencing judge made it clear why he considered Petersen to be unique from others who had received shorter punishments for similar offenses in other cases.
“Petersen arranged the sale of infants for personal profit; he did so for many years and in three states; he did so while serving as a public official; his crime involved a significant fraudulent scheme against the State of Arizona; he repeatedly lied and instructed others to do so; and he fully knew the illegality of his conduct. Petersen does not show the district court committed a clear error of judgment here,” the appeals court wrote.
Petersen argued the $100,000 fine was unreasonable because the judge improperly decided Petersen’s divorce was a sham to conceal assets and ignored a divorce decree indicating he would have no such access to his ex-wife’s assets.
“Even if this finding was erroneous, the district court did not clearly err in alternatively imposing a fine based on Petersen’s future ability to pay because of his prior legal education and employment,” the appeals court wrote.
Petersen’s attorney, Kurt Altman, didn’t return phone and email messages seeking comment on the appeals court ruling.
Petersen received his six-year federal sentence in Arkansas for conspiring to smuggle people. He also was given another five years for fraud convictions in Arizona for submitting false applications to the state’s Medicaid system so the birth mothers could receive state-funded health coverage — even though he knew they didn’t live in the state — and for providing documents to a county juvenile court that contained false information.
Petersen has said he has since paid back $670,000 in health care costs to the state of more than $800,000 that prosecutors cited in his indictment.
He also pleaded guilty to human smuggling and fraud in Utah.
Earlier in his life, Petersen, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had completed a proselytizing mission in the Marshall Islands, a collection of atolls and islands in the eastern Pacific, where he became fluent in the Marshallese language.
Petersen quit his elected job as Maricopa County’s assessor in January 2020 amid pressure from other county officials to resign.
He has already served nearly one year in prison.
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