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story.lead_photo.caption In this Nov. 15, 2019 file photo Paul Petersen appears at court in the Matheson courthouse in Salt Lake City Utah with his attorney Scott Williams. (Scott G. Winterton/The Deseret News via AP, Pool)

FAYETTEVILLE -- A lawyer indicted in Arkansas for an illegal adoption scheme pleaded guilty in Utah on Friday to human smuggling and other charges involving birth mothers from the Marshall Islands, according to media reports.

Paul Petersen, who formerly served as county assessor in Maricopa County, Ariz., struck a plea agreement Thursday with Arizona prosecutors on state Medicaid-fraud charges, his defense attorney confirmed that day.

He's expected to enter similar pleas to federal charges in Arkansas, the defense attorney confirmed. As of Friday, no change of plea hearing was set for Petersen in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas, court records show.

The 19-count federal indictment against Petersen includes one count of conspiracy to smuggle illegal aliens for commercial advantage and private financial gain; four counts of aiding and abetting alien smuggling for commercial advantage and private financial gain; seven counts of wire fraud; five counts of mail fraud; one count of conspiracy to commit visa fraud; and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering.

Petersen opened a branch of his law firm's office in Fayetteville in 2014, according to court records. Investigators estimated that branch of the firm handled about 30 adoptions a year. The firm's standard fee for an adoption was $10,000 up front and $25,000 upon completion of the adoption, court records say.

The federal investigation began in Arkansas in 2016 after members of local bar associations raised concerns about Petersen's practices to federal authorities, court records show.

Petersen was charged with illegally paying women from the Pacific island nation to come to the United States to give up their babies in at least 70 adoption cases in Arizona, Utah and Arkansas over three years. Marshall Islands citizens have been prohibited from traveling to the U.S. for adoption purposes.

The Marshall Islands are a former territory of the United States located about 2,000 miles west of Hawaii. Marshallese have the right to travel with few restriction to the United States under a treaty with that country.

Petersen pleaded guilty in Utah to three counts of human smuggling and one count of communications fraud, all felonies. He pleaded guilty to Medicaid fraud in Arizona for signing up Marshallese birth mothers for prenatal care and for delivery when such benefits are reserved for permanent Arizona residents in that state. The charges in Arizona said many of the birth mothers stayed in that state for four months.

The women brought to Utah to give birth received little or no prenatal care, prosecutors said in court documents. Their passports were also taken while they were in the U.S. to assert control over them, authorities said.

Petersen completed a missionary trip to the Marshall Islands in his youth, according to court records.


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