SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — An Arizona elected official charged with running an adoption-fraud scheme involving women from the Marshall Islands ran a legal practice and “made happy families,” his attorney said Friday.
Paul Petersen, county assessor in the Phoenix area, had long arranged adoptions between women from the Pacific Island nation and U.S. families, lawyer Scott Williams said. Petersen, he said, “has made happy families for 15 years, that’s what he has done open and notoriously.”
The comments came after Petersen made his first appearance in a Utah courtroom on charges including human smuggling, fraud and sale of a child. Prosecutors in Arizona, Utah and Arkansas say he paid women up to $10,000 to come to the United States to give up their babies in at least 70 adoption cases.
Upon arrival, the women were crammed into houses to wait to give birth and then provide their babies for adoption, prosecutors say. Petersen also is charged with falsely registering the women for state Medicaid benefits.
Marshall Islands citizens have been prohibited from traveling to the U.S. for adoption purposes since 2003.
The case has drawn condemnation from the Marshall Islands’ president, as well as a leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Petersen completed a mission in the Marshall Islands for the church in the late ’90s.
Ronald Rasband, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, has said he was “disgusted” by the charges, and the church plans to review Petersen’s membership.
Petersen’s attorney said his client has been vilified before his side of the story comes out. Petersen himself did not speak and Williams did not dispute any specific allegations on Friday but said the adoption practice was legitimate and Petersen had support from some in the Marshallese community.
Petersen is facing federal charges in Arkansas and state charges in Arizona and Utah. He has pleaded not guilty in Arizona and Arkansas. He has not yet entered an official plea in Utah and is due back in court in February.
Petersen also is fighting for his job after being suspended by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.