An adoption attorney who also serves as an elected official in Arizona’s largest county has been indicted in his alleged role in an adoption fraud scheme.
Paul Petersen, the assessor for Maricopa County, was arrested Tuesday night on charges of running an adoption fraud scheme, according to an indictment obtained by The Arizona Republic.
Petersen, an adoption lawyer licensed in Arizona and Utah, is facing similar charges in Utah, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.
The 32-count indictment filed in the Superior Court of Arizona alleges Petersen committed conspiracy, fraud and forgery. Petersen and another person, Lynwood Jennet, are accused of committing fraudulent schemes and artifices for organizing travel for women from the Marshall Islands, a country of volcanic islands between Hawaii and the Philippines, to give up their children for adoption in Arizona.
Petersen and Jennet claimed the pregnant women were Arizona residents so they could receive medical services from Arizona’s Medicaid system, according to the indictment.
Jennet worked for the law office of Paul D. Petersen, according to court documents obtained by News 12 in Arizona.
In Utah, where he faces more serious crimes, the attorney general alleges that Petersen transported more than 40 women from the Marshall Islands to have their children in the state between December 2016 and August 2019, offering each women $10,000 through associates, according to Utah court documents.
Petersen is charged with communications fraud, human smuggling and sale of a child in Utah.
Authorities in Utah started investigating Petersen when concerned hospital workers started cold-calling a human-trafficking tip line, Chief Criminal Deputy Attorney General Spencer Austin said in a statement.
Petersen’s failure to tell his clients seeking to adopt about his scheme led to his communications fraud charge, according to court records.
He charged parents wanting to adopt $35,000, with $25,000 to be paid upfront and $10,000 to be paid once the baby was born, according to Utah court records. Parents reported paying fees ranging between $25,000 and $41,000 for Petersen’s services. The parents were misinformed about the Marshallese women’s prenatal care and were not informed about the rules surrounding adoption of Marshallese babies, according to Utah court records.
The Marshallese women hardly had any prenatal care before being admitted, court documents state. The women would stay at properties Petersen owned during their pregnancies.
A woman identified as Hemrilla Saimon worked for Petersen. She was contacted when a pregnant Marshallese woman arrived at a hospital in Utah with adoption paperwork from Petersen’s office. A social worker for the hospital interviewed the woman, who later explained that she didn’t know the names of the people to whom she was giving her child and that she was being paid for the adoption, but she didn’t know by whom, according to Utah court records.
That Marshallese woman directed the social worker to Saimon, who told the social worker that she flew to the Marshall Islands to “find pregnant women to adopt their babies out,” according to Utah court records.
Saimon said that her housing and bills were paid for. She stayed at a home where the pregnant Marshallese women would stay during their time in Utah, according to Utah court records.
Subpoenaed bank records show that Petersen pocketed more than $2.7 million between December 2016 and Sept. 28, 2019, with most transfers to the account including notes that they were adoption payments, according to Utah court records.
Sean Reyes, Utah’s attorney general, told the Tribune that Petersen’s alleged schemes exploited the birth mothers and families from the Marshall Islands and the adoptive parents in Utah.
The tiny string of islands had the highest per capita adoption rate in the world in 1999, the Honolulu Civil Beat reported last year.
The United States and the Marshall Islands entered an agreement known as the Compact of Free Association, which had a subsection that prohibited Marshall Islands citizens from traveling to the United States solely for adoption purposes. It was amended in 2003.
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich said in a news conference that Petersen cost Arizona taxpayers more than $800,000 by committing fraud in its Medicaid system.
Petersen is also facing adoption fraud charges in Arkansas, Brnovich said. He added that the case against Petersen doesn’t mean Arizona will go after families involved in his alleged schemes.
“The families that adopted these children are not under investigation, and they’re not the focus of our investigation,” he stressed at the news conference.
Court documents show that Petersen charged up to $35,000 for adoptions.
An Arizona Department of Public Safety detective was contacted by a person in December 2018 who had crossed paths with Petersen through a third party. The person’s conversation with Petersen seemed “suspicious,” according to court documents.
After that tip, investigators found that Petersen had been involved in 29 births by 28 women in the state, according to the documents. He allegedly had been involved in adoptions with Marshallese babies since 2005 and promised some of the women up to $10,000 for their children. Petersen would cover their food, travel and cellphone expenses, in addition to the women being paid $1,000, according to briefs made by investigators in the court documents.
Jennet allegedly acted as the point of contact for individuals in the Marshall Islands who would find birth mothers interested in coming to the United States to give birth to a child to be given up for adoption, according to court filings. She also signed affidavits claiming that the pregnant women lived with her, and helped the mothers apply for Medicaid benefits under Petersen’s direction, according to court documents.
Petersen was first elected to the Maricopa County Assessor’s Office in 2014 and was reelected in 2016. He was the assessor’s representative at the Arizona Legislature and the public information officer before taking on his role, according to his website.
Maricopa County is the nation’s fourth-most-populous county. Its 4.4 million residents make up more than half of Arizona’s population.
The father of four has been working with families seeking to adopt for almost 15 years. The fifth-generation Arizonan is also an active member of the Maricopa County Republican Party and the Arizona Republican Party.