Ex-adoption lawyer appeals

He cites sentencing error, asks court to toss 6-year term

PHOENIX -- A former Arizona politician who acknowledged running an illegal adoption scheme in three states, including Arkansas, that involved birth mothers from the Marshall Islands has asked an appeals court to throw out his six-year prison sentence.

Attorneys for Paul Petersen argue that a judge double-counted factors in the case that increased the severity of Petersen's punishment, such as concluding that he abused his position as an adoption attorney.

Petersen, a Republican who served as Maricopa County's assessor for six years and operated an adoption practice on the side, is contesting the first of three sentences he'll receive for arranging adoptions that are prohibited by an international compact.

A month ago, he started serving the sentence for a federal conviction in Arkansas for conspiring to smuggle humans. He is to be sentenced next month on convictions for fraud in Arizona and for human smuggling in Utah.

Investigators estimated that Petersen handled a minimum of 30 Marshallese adoptions a year in Northwest Arkansas. His October 2019 indictment left 19 birth mothers and the prospective adoptive parents in legal limbo in Washington County Circuit Court. Those cases were dealt with under sealed records.

Petersen's Arkansas law firm kept as many as 12 pregnant women at a time in a single-family home in Springdale as part of his adoption practice, according to court documents. As many as 10 at a time lived in another home in De Queen, according to statements made at Petersen's plea hearing.

Northwest Arkansas has the largest concentration of Marshallese in the United States, other than Hawaii, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Petersen opened a branch of his law firm in Fayetteville in 2014, according to court records.

Petersen was given a prison term in the Arkansas case that was two years longer than sentencing recommendations had called for after a judge concluded that Petersen had misled or instructed others to lie to courts in adoptions that wouldn't have been approved had the truth been told to them.

In an appellate brief filed Tuesday, his attorney, Kurt Altman, said his client's sentencing range should have been between three and nearly four years in prison, arguing that Petersen's actions weren't intended to do harm and that his punishment was more severe than that given to others convicted of the same crime.

Charlie Robbins, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in western Arkansas, which prosecuted Petersen, declined to comment on the appeal.

Altman also argued to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the $100,000 fine imposed against Petersen in Arkansas was unreasonable because the judge had questioned whether Petersen's divorce was a ruse aimed at hiding his assets.

"There was no evidence to support that Mr. Petersen's divorce was a sham," Altman wrote. "There was no evidence to support that after losing his law license and his political office, and after spending several years in jail, that Mr. Petersen would be able to pay a large fine."

Authorities say Petersen illegally paid women from the Pacific island nation to come to the United States to give up their babies in at least 70 adoptions cases in Arizona, Utah and Arkansas. Marshall Islands citizens have been prohibited from traveling to the U.S. for adoption purposes since 2003.

Judge Timothy Brooks, who presided over the Arkansas case, had said at sentencing in December that Petersen turned what should be joyous adoption occasions into "a baby-selling enterprise" and described Petersen's adoption practice as a "criminal livelihood."

The judge also had said Petersen knowingly made false statements to immigration officials and state courts in carrying out the scheme, and had ripped off taxpayers at the same time he was elected to serve them. Brooks flatly rejected Petersen's claims that he initially thought he was acting within the bounds of the law but later realized what he was doing was illegal.

Petersen is to be sentenced on March 19 in Phoenix for submitting false applications to Arizona's Medicaid system so the mothers could receive state-funded health coverage -- even though he knew they didn't live in the state -- and for providing documents to a county juvenile court that contained false information.

Petersen has said he has since paid back $670,000 in health care costs to the state of more than $800,000 that prosecutors cited in his indictment.

His sentencing in Utah on human smuggling convictions is set for March 22.

Petersen has said he carried out hundreds of legal adoptions after he discovered a niche locating homes for vulnerable children from the Marshall Islands and helping needy mothers who wanted more stable family lives for their children.

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