In this file photo dated November 15, 2019, Paul Petersen appears with his attorney Scott Williams in court at the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Scott G. Winterton / The Deseret News via AP, Pool)
A lawyer convicted of illegal adoption programs in Arkansas and two other states involving pregnant women from the Republic of the Marshall Islands must report to jail at noon today to serve the first of his sentences.
Paul Petersen – a Republican who spent six years as an appraiser in Maricopa County, Arizona, and worked as an adoption attorney – was sentenced to six years in prison after pleading guilty in federal court in Arkansas to conspiracy to smuggle people .
Petersen is awaiting conviction in state courts in Arizona for fraud and in Utah for people smuggling and other convictions. No sentencing dates have been set for the cases from these states.
Prosecutors said Petersen illegally paid women from the Pacific island nation to come to the US to abandon their babies in at least 70 adoption cases in Arizona, Utah and Arkansas. Marshall Islands citizens have been banned from traveling to the United States for adoption purposes since 2003.
Kurt Altman, Petersen’s attorney, did not respond to phone and email messages Wednesday for comment.
Petersen is serving his Arkansas sentence in a federal prison near El Paso, Texas.
Investigators estimated he handled at least 30 Marshall adoptions a year in northwest Arkansas. Nineteen newborn mothers and prospective adoptive parents were in limbo in Washington County Circuit Court following his October 2019 indictment. These cases were handled under sealed records.
Petersen’s Arkansas law firm held up to 12 pregnant women at a time in a Springdale family home as part of his adoption practice, according to court records. According to Petersen’s hearing, up to ten people were living in another house in De Queen at the same time.
Northwest Arkansas has the largest concentration of Marshallese in the United States, alongside Hawaii, according to the US Census Bureau. According to court records, Petersen opened a branch of his law firm in Fayetteville in 2014.
The judge gave him two years longer than recommended in prison, calling Petersen’s adoption practice “criminal livelihood” and saying Petersen knowingly made false statements to immigration officials and state courts while running the program.
Petersen has appealed the punishment.
In Arizona, he pleaded guilty of fraud for submitting false claims to the Arizona’s Medicaid system so the newborn mothers could get federally funded health insurance – even though he knew they weren’t in the state – and documents to a juvenile court County that contained incorrect information.
Early in his life, Petersen, 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 was fluent in the Marshallese language.
He quit his chosen job as a Maricopa County appraiser last year under pressure from other district officials to resign.