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Sean D. Reyes
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Paul Petersen Pleads Guilty in Marshallese Adoption Fraud Case

June 19, 2020


Petersen Also Convicted in Arizona and Arkansas of Various Felonies

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH –   Today, former Maricopa County Arizona Assessor Paul Petersen pleaded guilty in Utah’s Third District Court to three counts of Human Smuggling and one count of Communications Fraud in an illegal adoption scheme case that extended to three states and the Marshall Islands. 

Listen to the press conference with more details on this case and plea deal here:

Watch the press conference below.
The Utah Attorney General’s Office led the investigation into a business Petersen owned that involved recruiting, transporting, and paying Marshallese women to place their babies for adoption in the U.S.  The scheme extended to the states of Arkansas, which has a large Marshallese population and Arizona, where Petersen lives.
“Today, Utah is safer. The rest of America and our friends in the Marshall Islands are safer. Today, justice begins to be served as Mr. Petersen will be held accountable for his crimes while his many victims are given some closure in the aftermath of this tragedy,” said Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes. “We’ve sent a clear message. Whether you are committing fraud, human smuggling, trafficking or any related crimes, we will aggressively protect Utahns and come after you.”

Attorney General Reyes is asking for the maximum sentence to each of these charges which includes up to 15 years in prison, a $50,000 fine, forfeiting his law license and future ability to practice or facilitate adoptions in Utah.  Petersen will also face separate penalties in Arizona and Arkansas. He pleaded guilty Thursday to Medicaid Fraud-related crimes in Arizona and will serve between three and twelve years in prison. He is expected to plead guilty to Harboring Aliens for Financial Gain (a federal crime) in Arkansas and serve up to ten years in federal prison.  He will serve the federal sentence first and the sentences will run concurrently.
“Convicting Paul Petersen of four serious felony charges is a just and encouraging resolution of the state’s criminal case,” said Dan Strong, Assistant Attorney General and SECURE Section Director. “Between the sentences in all three states, we are confident Petersen will serve a substantial prison term—a stronger result than any jurisdiction could likely have achieved individually. We are especially proud to have achieved this outcome without putting the victims in this case through a difficult trial that would have involved wrenching testimony on sensitive family issues. We hope this conviction and sentence gives these victims some closure, and that it will deter Petersen and others like him from flouting international law, exploiting vulnerable mothers, and defrauding parents seeking to adopt.”
An international compact between the United States and the Marshall Islands prohibits Marshallese citizens from traveling to the United States for purposes of adoption. During his guilty plea, Petersen admitted that he knowingly transported Marshallese women into the United States, knowing they were not United States citizens, and did so to facilitate adoptions. Petersen also admitted he did not inform the American couples seeking to adopt these children about the international restrictions on Marshallese adoptions, and that he omitted this information to obtain the adoption payments.
These kinds of cases are complex, troubling and the crimes have a significant impact on the victims,” said Professor of Law Paul Cassell at the S.J. Quinney School of Law at the University of Utah and a former U.S. District Court Judge. “I have personally been involved in negotiating resolutions in these situations through the legal system and believe that this is a just resolution and will deter future violations of law and will provide a just punishment.”

Attorney General Reyes expressed gratitude to all those who dedicated time and effort in this case: “I’m extremely proud of the tireless work our Attorney General investigators, prosecutors, victim advocates and community partners have done on this case. Utah led out on the investigation which lasted well over a year and our prosecutors’ close working relationship with Arizona and Arkansas, will lead to a collective result that no state alone would likely have been able to obtain.  I thank our state and federal partners and the Republic of the Marshall Islands for their cooperation and support on this complex case.”


Watch the press conference below: