A lawyer for an Arizona elected official charged in three states in an international adoption scheme said Tuesday prosecutors have miscast his client as a human smuggler.
Attorney Matt Long 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.
Prosecutors say Petersen paid the women up to $10,000 to come to the United States, where they were crammed into houses to wait to give birth and provide their babies for adoption.
Petersen faces charges in Arizona, Utah and Arkansas that include human smuggling, sale of a child, fraud, forgery and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
“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.”
A judge in Phoenix delayed Petersen’s arraignment until after an Oct. 29 hearing in Arkansas, where he faces federal charges.
A judge in Utah on Tuesday declined to reduce his $3 million bail. The amount was based in part on $2.7 million that authorities say was deposited into an account for adoption fees over several years. Petersen’s Utah attorney, Scott Williams, said much of that money has been spent.
Petersen is currently in federal custody.
There are nearly 30 pending adoptions in Arkansas, Arizona and Utah that were being handled by Petersen’s company, according to court documents.
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. They didn’t have money, cellphones or transportation, prosecutors said.
The agent also said Peterson 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 has 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, 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.
Long said Petersen has no plans to resign from his elected position determining 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.
Petersen and Long 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 he’s looking for another lawyer to represent Petersen because of their friendship and Long’s own deep ties to the Marshallese community, noting he adopted a Marshallese child 20 years ago.