PHOENIX -- A lawyer for an Arizona elected official charged in three states with facilitating an illegal international adoption scheme said Tuesday that prosecutors have miscast his client as a human smuggler.
Matt Long, a Scottsdale, Ariz., attorney, said Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen cares deeply for the mothers from the Marshall Islands whom he connected with adoptive parents in the United States.
"This was not a human smuggling scheme. This was not human trafficking," Long said. "That's going to be borne out by evidence. That's going to be borne out by the manner in which it will be demonstrated that Mr. Petersen dealt with the birth mothers and the adopted families."
Joshua Bryant of Rogers, attorney for 13 would-be adoptive parents suing Petersen in Washington County Circuit Court, disagreed Tuesday. His clients' adoptions are now uncertain.
"Call it what you will, but the adoptions we're having to clean up are riddled with mothers who were told who was going to adopt their child, crammed in housing leased by associates of Mr. Petersen's, been in the United States for only a few weeks, and threatened with jail time or deportation if they exercised a modicum of free will," Bryant said in a statement.
Bryant praised the work of Arkansas lawmakers and Shared Beginnings, a Fayetteville-based nonprofit, and volunteer attorneys for their efforts to help the birth mothers since Petersen's arrest.
"The eyes of the nation are on Arkansas and how we rise up and deal with this," he said. "This team and the community and state rallying around them is doing Arkansas proud."
Washington County Circuit Judge Doug Martin stripped Petersen's firm of all its pending adoption cases in Arkansas during an emergency hearing Friday, as requested in a lawsuit filed by the adoptive parents represented by Bryant. Martin appointed Andrea McCurdy, an adoption attorney from Fayetteville, as attorney for the birth mothers in those cases. Martin will sort out each of the adoptions on a case-by-case basis, he ruled.
In a related matter, Arkansas' Office of Professional Conduct in Arkansas will take up this week whether to suspend Petersen's law license, a spokesman for that office said Friday. Petersen was licensed to practice law in all three states in which he is charged.
At least $1 million in transactions were described in the federal indictment in 2014 through 2015 involving the adoptions. Another $2.7 million in wire transfers between 2016 through 2018 are described in Utah charges. U.S. Attorney Duane "Dak" Kees of the Western District of Arkansas estimates that Petersen's firm represented 30-35 birth mothers a year in Arkansas alone.
Prosecutors say Petersen paid the women up to $10,000 to come to the United States, where they were reportedly crammed into houses to wait to give birth and give up their babies for adoption. He faces charges in Arizona, Utah and Arkansas that include human smuggling, sale of a child, fraud, forgery and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Petersen is also accused of collecting money from adoptive parents to cover the birth mothers' expenses, then inflating those expenses in court records. He is also charged in Arizona with enrolling the birth mothers in that state's Medicaid program illegally by claiming they were permanent Arizona residents.
Long said prosecutors cherry-picked facts to support their narrative and he is confident Petersen will be vindicated.
Petersen was due for an arraignment Tuesday morning on state charges in Arizona. A judge in Phoenix delayed that proceeding until federal authorities hold an arraignment of Petersen. He is set to be arraigned on his 19-count federal indictment Oct. 29 in U.S. District Court in Fayetteville.
In Utah, Petersen is asking a judge in Salt Lake City to reduce the $3 million bail he faces there. Arizona authorities set a $500,000 cash bond for Petersen's release, which Petersen has not yet met. The court in Utah also reset Petersen's bond hearing in Salt Lake City, according to a spokeswoman for the 3rd District Court, Salt Lake Department. The Utah hearing is now set for Nov. 1, she said.
There are nearly 30 pending adoptions in Arkansas, Arizona and Utah that were being handled by Petersen's firm, according to court documents. At least 19 birth mothers in the country have cases pending in Arkansas, according to court testimony there.
The women in Utah were "frightened and nervous" after Petersen was arrested, according to an affidavit filed by a special agent with the Utah attorney general's office that investigated the case. They didn't have money, cellphones or transportation, prosecutors said.
Women in the Arkansas cases, including one living in Oklahoma, are similarly distraught, according to testimony in an emergency hearing Friday morning in Washington County Circuit Court.
The Utah agent also said Petersen and his associates would take passports from the Marshallese women while they were in the U.S., which gave him more control over them.
Petersen has been unfairly ping-ponged between state and federal custody, and has been largely denied access to his lawyer, Long said. That's made it hard for Petersen to defend himself and for lawyers, mothers and adoptive families to understand the ramifications for pending adoptions, he said.
"I can't get access to him, other people can't get access to him for a sufficient amount of time in order to work through some of these issues," Long said.
Petersen, he said, cares deeply about the Marshallese community and helped his clients navigate the complicated emotions involved with adoption.
"That's been consistent in Mr. Petersen's life -- a care and concern for the Marshallese community," Long said.
Petersen and Long both completed missions in the Marshall Islands with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and they later worked in the islands on behalf of an international adoption agency. They continued working with the agency while both were in law school in Arizona.
Long said Petersen has no plans to resign from his elected position. His office determines the value of properties for tax purposes.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and virtually all of Maricopa County's elected officials have said Petersen, a Republican, should quit because the charges make it difficult for him to serve.
Long said he's looking for another lawyer to represent Petersen because of their friendship and because of Long's own deep ties to the Marshallese community, noting that he adopted a Marshallese child 20 years ago.
Information for this article was contributed by Doug Thompson of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
A dedicated email address has been created to allow anyone affected by Paul Petersen’s arrest to contact the U.S. attorney’s office with questions or concerns. The identity of people contacting the office and information received will be strictly confidential. The office may be reached by emailing to firstname.lastname@example.org. or through a direct link at www.justice.gov/wdar.
Source: Staff report
Metro on 10/16/2019
Print Headline: In adoption case, client not villain, lawyer says