Things are not looking good for Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen. Following raids on his home and law office, he’s been indicted in a bizarre international adoption scheme involving bringing pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to homes that he owned until they gave birth. The maneuver involved paying birth mothers and unlawfully selling the babies to adoptive parents. Initially, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office and the Utah Attorney General’s Office were involved in charging Petersen. But he has not escaped the attention of authorities in Arkansas where 19 federal felony charges relating to smuggling, wire fraud, mail fraud, visa fraud, and money laundering have been filed against him.
There is a quirky angle to this strange case. If the Marshall Islands sound familiar, it’s because a remote one of them was a favorite haunt of single term AZ Sen. Jeff Flake. Younger and buff as a congressman, and consumed by fits of bravado, he ventured there alone…except for his tripod and camera.
It was not happenstance that this remote chain of islands caught the attention of Flake and Petersen. They are also a prolific base for LDS Church proselytizing, and are where Petersen served his two-year church mission.
Petersen’s chatty bio on the assessor’s website describes him as a fifth-generation Arizonan with ties to territorial days, a husband and father of four and most interestingly, “continues to practice law from his Mesa-based law office…and remains committed to helping people all across the country in their effort to adopt children. He has helped guide families through this complicated process for nearly 15 years and has provided counsel for adoptive and birth parents alike in hundreds of adoption cases since the beginning of his adoption practice.” Peterson further notes he is admitted to practice law in Arizona and several other states. Petersen did double duty as general counsel for Bright Star Adoptions, an agency that operates out of the same building as his law office. His legal bio remains accessible on the State Bar’s website.
The 32-count AZ Attorney General’s indictment (visible here) alleges conspiracy, theft, forgery and 29 counts of fraudulent schemes.
Petersen and his co-defendant Lynwood Jennet, a Marshallese woman who aided in the fraud, are accused in the indictment of illegally obtaining services from Arizona’s Medicaid system for the women, while falsely claiming the women were Arizona residents. Petersen is accused of bilking the state out of $814,000, according to the Arizona Attorney General’s Office. On his (now inaccessible) law office website, Petersen noted he charges $40,000 per adoption.
During Petersen’s initial court appearance, a $500,000 cash bond was ordered as well as the relinquishment of his passport, since he is deemed a potential flight risk.
Paul Petersen remains in jail and Arizona elected officials are demanding he step down from his post as Maricopa County Assessor. Duane Kees, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas announced at a Wednesday news conference that if Petersen is found guilty of all of the federal charges in Arkansas alone, he could be sentenced up to 315 years in prison and be fined $5 million.
Oct. 28, 2019: The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to suspend Paul Petersen for 120 days from his position as Maricopa County Assessor citing “neglect of duty.” The board does not have the authority to remove him from office. He has been in police custody since Oct. 8.
Oct. 28, 2019: Petersen posted bond and was released from custody.