A former Arizona official was sentenced on Tuesday to more than six years in federal prison for running a multistate adoption fraud scheme that prosecutors said had preyed on women from the Marshall Islands and would-be foster parents in the United States who were eager to start families.
The official, Paul D. Petersen, a Republican who was twice elected as the assessor of Maricopa County, arranged for at least 70 illegal adoptions in Arkansas, Arizona and Utah, prosecutors said. In some of those cases, prosecutors said, he falsified residency information so that he could enroll pregnant women from the South Pacific island nation in state health care coverage.
A 1983 compact prohibits citizens of the Marshall Islands from traveling to the United States for the purposes of adoption. The compact allows Marshallese citizens to freely enter and work in the United States.
“He exploited a legal loophole and used it to run an international adoption business outside the necessary oversight from the United States or the Republic of the Marshall Islands,” David Clay Fowlkes, the first assistant U.S. attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, said in a statement. “This unique case merited the strong sentence ordered by the court today.”
“During the scheme,” Mr. Fowlkes said, “the defendant lied to state court judges, falsified records, encouraged others to lie during court proceedings, and manipulated birth mothers into consenting to adoptions they did not fully understand.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Petersen, 45, appeared via Zoom at a sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court in Fayetteville, Ark., after pleading guilty to a human trafficking charge in June.
Mr. Petersen, a resident of Mesa, Ariz., is awaiting sentencing on state charges in Arizona and Utah, where he previously pleaded guilty to human smuggling and fraud counts.
His lawyers did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.
Prosecutors in the federal case in Arkansas had sought a 10-year sentence for Mr. Petersen, whose lawyers asserted that he had helped create many loving families over the years as a private adoption lawyer and had accepted responsibility for his actions.
Under the terms of his plea agreement in Arkansas, Mr. Petersen must also pay a $100,000 fine and will be under supervised release for three years after he leaves prison.
As part of the scheme, prosecutors said, Mr. Petersen offered each of the expecting mothers $10,000 to put their newborns up for adoption, siphoning off money for housing and health care after arranging for them to travel more than 5,000 miles to the United States.
Then, after falsifying the residency records of some of the expecting mothers to enroll them in state health care coverage, Mr. Petersen commanded a $35,000 fee from parents eager to adopt, according to the authorities in Arizona.
In October 2019, Mr. Petersen was indicted in his home state of Arizona and in Arkansas and Utah.
At the time, he had been serving as the assessor of Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and is Arizona’s most populous county. The assessor is responsible for land valuations and property tax policy. In 2016, Mr. Petersen received more than one million votes in the assessor’s race. He resigned from the post in January of this year.
At the time of his arrest, Mr. Petersen’s adoption website listed the average cost for an adoption as $30,000 to $40,000, which “covers the birth mother’s monthly expenses, prenatal and delivery medical expenses and assistants and office expenses.”
A co-defendant in the Arizona case pleaded guilty to charges of fraud, theft and failing to file a tax return in December 2019, the state attorney general’s office said.