PHOENIX – A former Arizona politician who acknowledged that he had illegal adoptions in three states, including Arkansas, involving biological mothers from the Marshall Islands, has asked an appeals court to dismiss his six-year sentence.
Lawyers for Paul Petersen say a judge double counted factors in the case that added to the seriousness of Petersen’s sentence, such as the conclusion that he abused his position as an adoption attorney.
Petersen, a Republican who has served six years as a Maricopa County assessor and has also conducted an adoption practice, disputes the first of three sentences he will face for arranging adoptions prohibited by an international pact.
A month ago, he began serving the sentence for a federal conviction in Arkansas for conspiring to smuggle people. He will be convicted next month of fraud convictions in Arizona and human trafficking in Utah.
Researchers estimate that Petersen handled a minimum of 30 Marshallese adoptions per year in Northwest Arkansas. At his October 2019 indictment, 19 biological mothers and the future adoptive parents were legally in limbo at Washington County Circuit Court. Those cases were handled under sealed documents.
Petersen’s Arkansas law firm held as many as 12 pregnant women at a time in a single-family home in Springdale as part of its adoption practice, according to court documents. According to statements made during Petersen’s plea, as many as ten lived at the same time in another house in The Queen.
According to the US Census Bureau, Northwest Arkansas has the largest concentration of Marshallese in the United States, except Hawaii. According to the court, Petersen opened a branch of his law firm in Fayetteville in 2014.
Petersen was given a jail sentence in the Arkansas case that was two years longer than called for in the sentencing recommendations after a judge concluded that Petersen had misled or instructed others to lie to the court on adoptions that would not be approved if the truth had been told to them.
In an appeal filed Tuesday, his attorney, Kurt Altman, said his client’s sentence range should have been between three and nearly four years in prison, arguing that Petersen’s actions were not intended to harm and that his sentence was heavier than that. given to others who have been convicted of the same crime.
Charlie Robbins, a spokesman for the American law firm in western Arkansas that was prosecuting Petersen, declined to comment on the appeal.
Altman also argued to the 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals that the $ 100,000 fine imposed on Petersen in Arkansas was unreasonable, as the judge had questioned whether Petersen’s divorce was a ruse to conceal his assets.
“There was no evidence that Mr. Petersen’s divorce was a sham,” Altman wrote. “There was no evidence that Mr. Petersen could pay a large fine after losing his legal license and political office and spending several years in prison.”
Authorities say that in at least 70 adoptions in Arizona, Utah and Arkansas, Petersen illegally paid women from the Pacific archipelago to come to the United States to give up their babies. Citizens of the Marshall Islands have been banned from traveling to the US for adoption purposes since 2003.
Judge Timothy Brooks, who chaired the Arkansas case, had said in December’s sentencing that Petersen was turning what should be joyful adoption moments into “a baby sales company” and described Petersen’s adoption practice as a “criminal existence.”
The judge had also said that Petersen knowingly made false statements to immigration officials and state courts in the implementation of the plan, and that he had defrauded taxpayers at the same time that he was chosen to serve them. Brooks flatly rejected Petersen’s claims that he initially thought he was acting within the bounds of the law, but later realized that what he was doing was illegal.
Petersen will be convicted March 19 in Phoenix for filing false applications to the Medicaid system in Arizona so that the mothers could get state-funded health insurance – even though he knew they didn’t live in the state – and for providing of documents to a county juvenile court that contained false information.
Petersen has said he has since repaid $ 670,000 in health care costs to the state of more than $ 800,000 that prosecutors cited in his indictment.
His conviction for human smuggling in Utah is on March 22.
Petersen has said he has conducted hundreds of legal adoptions after discovering a niche to seek shelters for vulnerable children from the Marshall Islands and provide assistance to needy mothers who wanted a more stable family life for their children.