An Arizona attorney who spent at least a decade facilitating black market adoptions of Marshallese newborns pleaded guilty this week to multiple felonies in Arizona.

Paul Petersen still faces charges in Utah and Arkansas but this week’s plea agreement resolves his two criminal cases in Arizona. Petersen was the focus of a 2018 Civil Beat investigation into illicit adoptions that violate a treaty between the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the U.S.

The former elected Maricopa County assessor flew pregnant Marshallese women to the U.S. to give up their babies to American couples. According to a press release from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Petersen fraudulently billed taxpayers for medical costs associated with at least 29 births between November 2015 and May 2019. Many Marshallese birth mothers told Civil Beat they did not realize that they would lose all connection to their children through the adoptions.

Paul Petersen, right, smiles during his 2014 swearing-in ceremony as Maricopa County assessor.

Maricopa County Assessor's Office

Petersen was also the subject of a second criminal investigation in Arizona for providing false information to adoptive parents and court officials to get adoptions approved, including lying about how much money he spent on birth mothers’ living expenses.

Petersen pleaded guilty Thursday in Maricopa County Superior Court to fraudulent schemes and artifices, a class 2 felony; fraudulent schemes and practices, a class 5 felony; forgery, a class 4 felony and fraudulent schemes and practices, a class 5 felony.

Petersen agreed through a plea agreement to pay $650,000 to the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System; $11,000 to an “uncharged victim”; and $18,000 to reimburse the Arizona Attorney General’s office for investigative costs.

He faces three to 12.5 years in state prison in Arizona for his first case, and between six months and up to four years in prison for his second case.

Petersen’s co-conspirator, Lynwood Jennet, pleaded guilty in December 2019 and agreed to testify against Petersen. She faces between two and four years in state prison. Neither have been sentenced yet.

Click here to read Civil Beat’s series, “Black Market Babies.”

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