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Maricopa County Assessor Resigns, Under Prosecution for Human Trafficking. But the Facts May Say Otherwise.

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AP Photo/Marco Ugarte

You’ve successfully conducted adoptions since 2005. But suddenly, in 2019, prosecutors come after you, claiming you are engaging in human trafficking. What drastically changed over 14 years? This is the nightmare that has happened to Paul Petersen, who until January 7 was the Maricopa County Assessor in Arizona. 


Petersen was pressured into resigning his position after prosecutors got him indicted for bringing women from the Marshall Islands to the U.S. to give birth, then give their babies up for adoption. The prosecution says it’s illegal human trafficking. Prosecutors in Arizona, Utah and Arkansas are seeking federal and state charges against him.

But what is really going on? The media is only reporting the prosecution’s side, leaving out the full picture. The media says it’s against the law to bring babies for adoption from the Marshall Islands to the U.S. unless it goes through the Central Adoption Authority, which is an entity of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. But they don’t bother reporting that this law only applies to babies that are already born; a fetus in the womb doesn’t constitute a person under the statute.

The media also reports that Petersen told the women to lie to U.S. Customs about the real reason they were entering the country. According to Petersen’s wife Raquel this is not true. The women generally weren’t asked their purpose, and not about pregnancy.

The federal government is charging Petersen with aiding and abetting the entry of an illegal alien. But the women are allowed to be here without a visa; they’re not illegal immigrants. When Petersen brought them through customs, they were approved. The state of Utah is charging him with sale of a child — but what do you think adoption is? 

Petersen would fly the women to Phoenix or other locations where they would stay in a home while pregnant. He paid them $1,000 per month and provided them with food, travel and cell phone payments. The women were promised up to $10,000 to allow Petersen to adopt out their babies.


The young Marshallese women were eager to come to the U.S. to find a better living for themselves and their babies. Many of them already had family in the U.S. How can you traffic a person if they want to move to the U.S.? The media also falsely claims that the women returned to the Marshall Islands after giving birth. This is not true. Most of them remained in the U.S., and many came back to Petersen with later pregnancies, asking for more assistance with adoption. The mothers looked up to Petersen like a big brother, who they could trust to find a good adoptive family. 

The mothers would speak up and defend Petersen, but the prosecution has instilled fear in them so they don’t dare say anything. Instead, out of hundreds of adoptions Petersen completed, the prosecution found a handful of mothers to speak negatively about him. This is a normal number considering the number of adoptions he conducted.  

Marshallese women keep texting him asking him to handle new adoptions, but the prosecution has prohibited him from responding. Meanwhile, judges are approving his existing adoptions — if they’re illegal, then why are they getting approved?

The women preferred to use the services of Petersen over the services of the Marshallese government. The government wasn’t taking care of the women properly, but it still charged the same amount. Petersen is the most successful adoption attorney working with Marshallese women. The government may have resented him taking so much business and filed complaints against him in the U.S.


There are accusations that Petersen kept the women in cramped quarters, sometimes with five women sharing one bedroom. This was normal; the Marshallese are more communal and live several to a room. The media said they were cockroach-infested apartments. The truth is, Petersen remodeled the apartments in question, which then became the nicest ones in the area.

Bizarrely, Petersen has only been charged with human trafficking in Utah and by the federal government. Arizona prosecutors merely charged him with Medicaid fraud, which the other governments didn’t. They say the women weren’t eligible for Medicaid until they have lived in the state for at least five years. But states cannot have time length residency requirements for urgent medical care. The media isn’t explaining the difference between regular Medicaid, which includes prenatal care, and emergency Medicaid, which is for delivery only. The media isn’t reporting that Petersen paid for the prenatal care, not the government. If Petersen had violated the law, then why were the emergency Medicare costs of delivery approved for 14 years?

Of course, some of the independent contractors working for him may have filled out the wrong forms, having gotten bad advice from the hospitals on how to fill out forms. The hospitals are interested in turning a profit. 

The media said text messages were found on Petersen’s county-issued laptop trying to talk some of the women out of reconsidering their adoptions. This is inaccurate. Petersen used FB Messenger on his personal cell phone, not on the county laptop. But since he was logged onto Facebook on his county laptop, prosecutors interpreted this to mean the messages were exchanged there. Facebook Messenger is how the Marshallese women conduct 80% of their communications. Regardless, the county policies restricting personal use on county equipment doesn’t apply to elected officials — yet another fact the media left out.


The Maricopa County Supervisors placed him on administrative leave after he was indicted, citing his inability to do his job. But the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, which is prosecuting him, issued a report which said he was doing his job at a high level; the assessor’s work was being done. He had no complaints from higher management. Although he was placed in jail for three weeks, three of the supervisors had been gone longer on vacations than he’d been imprisoned.

The media claims he threatened the women with eviction. They never bothered to report that this did not come from Petersen. What happened was one of the women was still living in one of his residences after she said she didn’t want to give the baby up for adoption, so his assistant told her she needed to move out.

The government treated Petersen like a sleazy criminal when law enforcement arrested him. On October 8, authorities arrested Petersen after raiding his home. In November, they seized $1.5 million of his assets and froze his bank accounts. This is bizarre considering the government claims the alleged Medicaid fraud cost the agency about half that, $800,000. Without access to his bank accounts, Petersen can’t pay to defend himself. He can’t do anything with his official residence. He has nothing. Petersen has to get approval from the Arizona Attorney General to sell anything. He is restricted from practicing law. He has four young kids he needs to support. 

The reality is, most of the population doesn’t agree with civil forfeiture. There is currently a bill being considered in the Arizona State Legislature that would restrict civil forfeiture to post-conviction.  


Petersen’s co-defendant, Lynwood Jennet, has agreed to testify against him in exchange for a plea agreement. She will go to prison for two to four years and pay nearly $1 million in restitution due to Medicaid fraud. Jennet is Marshallese and acted as an intermediary between Petersen and the birth mothers. Raquel Peterson said she has nothing bad to say about Jennet; she was a close family friend. She’s sadly collateral damage. 

In addition to human trafficking, charges against Petersen include seven counts of wire fraud, five counts of mail fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Those types of crimes are generally piled on to create the appearance that a defendant is a really bad actor. In reality, they are merely process crimes, normal things the defendant was doing in the process of the main crime he’s charged with, such as using the telephone. This can be evidence that the prosecution is targeting someone and throwing the book at them in order to conduct a sensational trial and teach others a lesson.

One man who adopted three Marshallese babies through the help of Petersen told ABC 15 that he did not believe it was human trafficking. “There are no women who have been forced to do anything that they didn’t want to do. This isn’t anything close to trafficking, in any way shape or form.” He declined to be identified. He had nothing but praise for Petersen, “It may look bad from the outside, but he’s doing them a service or favor by helping them get out of a predicament that they would otherwise not want to be in.”


It appears that prosecutors criminalized a legitimate business Petersen ran. Let’s hope Petersen’s attorneys are able to get the facts out adequately to the jury so he gets a fair trial. The mainstream media should be ashamed of itself for not reporting the full story. Adoption is a wonderful thing, it should not be criminalized and treated the same as human trafficking. 

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