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Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen indicted in adoption fraud


JESSICA BOEHM   | The Republic | azcentral.com

Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen has been indicted in an adoption fraud scheme, the Arizona Attorney General's Office confirmed late Tuesday.

The assessor has for years run an adoption law practice in Mesa, which involves bringing women from the Marshall Islands to the U.S. to give birth. Their babies have been placed for adoption with U.S. parents.

Petersen is accused in the indictment of illegally obtaining services from Arizona's Medicaid system for the women, falsely claiming the women are Arizona residents. Petersen is accused of bilking the state out of more than $800,000, the Arizona Attorney General's Office said Wednesday.

He also is accused of violating a compact between the U.S. and the Marshall Islands. It prohibits citizens of that country to come to the U.S. if their travel is for the purpose of adoption, unless they have a special visa.

The 32-count indictment alleges conspiracy, theft, forgery and 29 counts of fraudulent schemes. 

Petersen was indicted along with another person, Lynwood Jennet. Little information was immediately available about Jennet.

"The scheme in this case fraudulently represented the pregnant women in question were residents of Arizona in order to obtain medical services by the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System because without residency Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System services cannot be obtained," the indictment reads.

According to his website, Petersen charges $40,000 per adoption.

The Attorney General's Office planned a news conference for 11 a.m. Wednesday to discuss the "multi-state investigation, arrest and criminal indictment" involving Petersen. 

According to a news release, the Arizona Department of Public Safety, Homeland Security Investigations and the Utah Attorney General’s Office also were involved in the investigation.

Late Tuesday, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that the Utah attorney general charged Petersen with 11 other felonies, including communications fraud, human smuggling and sale of a child.

The Utah attorney general alleged that Petersen recruited more than 40 pregnant women from the Marshall Islands over the past three years and transported them to Utah, where they were paid to give up their children for adoption in the U.S., the Tribune reported. 

An investigation by Honolulu Civil Beat last year questioned the legality of the adoptions Petersen administers through his private-sector job as a private adoption attorney.

According to the report, Petersen arranges and pays for pregnant Marshallese women to fly to Utah and live in a four-bedroom house he owns outside of Salt Lake City. He then matches them with adoptive families. 

The Compact of Free Associations, a treaty enacted in the early 2000s, prohibits Marshallese women considering an adoption plan for their children from traveling to the U.S. without a special visa.

The treaty was enacted to control black market adoptions from the Marshall Islands. Civil Beat reported that pregnant women, who did not understand the consequences of adoption, were rampantly exploited in the 1990s. Some were told that their children would return when they turned 18. 

The travel restrictions were supposed to protect pregnant women. But, according to Civil Beat, some high-dollar adoption attorneys, including Petersen, have found a way around the law. Marshall Islands citizens not planning adoptions do not need visas to travel to the U.S.

A spokesman for the state Attorney General's Office said the families involved in the adoptions administered by Petersen are not the focus of the Arizona investigation.

Anyone with information or questions related to Marshall Islands adoptions cal call the Attorney General's Office at 602-542-8888.

About Paul Petersen

Petersen is in his second term as assessor. He won a special election in 2014 to replace Keith Russell in the job and was reelected in 2016.

Before his election, Petersen served nearly eight years in the Assessor's Office working as the assessor's representative at the Arizona Legislature and as the agency's public information officer, according to his biography on the county assessor's website.

Petersen is an active member of the Maricopa County Republican Party, the Arizona Republican Party, and a precinct committeeman in Legislative District 25, according to the bio.

Petersen said his Mesa-based law practice focuses on "helping people all across the country in their effort to adopt children" and has done so for nearly 15 years.

He is a 2002 graduate of the Sandra Day O'Connor School of Law at Arizona State University.

Reach the reporter at jessica.boehm@gannett.com or 480-694-1823. Follow her on Twitter @jboehm_NEWS

2019 Oct 8