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Assessor Wrongly Convicted of Human Smuggling Forced Into Taking Guilty Plea

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

When powerful authorities want to get you, they have a good chance of getting you. The average person doesn’t have the finances to defend against the unlimited, taxpayer-funded pockets of the government. If prosecutors think they may not have a good chance of convicting you at trial, they can threaten to stack felony charges, so if you are found guilty at trial you could end up with what amounts to a life sentence. This terrifies people, not knowing for sure how the trial could turn out especially if they can’t afford a powerful legal team, so they accept a guilty plea that will result in a relatively short sentence. But everyone then thinks they must have been guilty. Prosecutors particularly like to target conservative politicians. 


This is what happened to former Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen. He had an impeccable history, active in his faith community and a family man specializing in adoptions since 2005. People who worked with him in county government told me he is an upstanding citizen. But in 2019, federal prosecutors and prosecutors in three states came after him for his adoptions, with some claiming he had engaged in human trafficking since the adoptions involved bringing pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to the U.S. I covered this in a previous article, explaining how it wasn’t human trafficking. What likely started all this is the Marshall Islands government filed complaints with U.S. prosecutors since they didn’t like competition arranging these types of adoptions. 

Facing prosecutions in four different jurisdictions where the mothers gave birth, Petersen was threatened with stacked felonies in Arizona if he went to trial. Prosecutors threatened to reindict him on what were essentially multiple paperwork violations, making it look like he was a prior offender. If he was found guilty at trial on just three counts, he would be sentenced to 15 years in prison, which the judge has no discretion to change. Prosecutors had seized his property and money under civil forfeiture laws, so he had no money to defend himself. They made it impossible for him to defend himself in four different criminal trials. He has several young children who he didn’t want to grow up without him and didn't want to lose his ability to support them, so he took the guilty pleas. 


In Arizona, he admitted to three counts of fraud and one count of forgery for illegally accessing Arizona's Medicaid system to pay for the medical care of Marshallese birth mothers. Prosecutors said he engaged in $1 million dollars of Medicaid fraud. In reality, the mothers became residents after they moved to Arizona. They are legally allowed to use Medicaid to give birth. Illegal immigrants get their births paid for, so why shouldn’t poor women who legally come over the border? Petersen paid $10,000 for one mother’s medical bills and living expenses up until the actual birth. But prosecutors claimed that Petersen engaged in Medicare fraud since Medicare paid for complications after the baby was born (the baby ended up dying). But in Petersen’s contracts with the adoptive parents, they are supposed to assume costs after the birth. 

Another count was due to a paperwork error. Instead of saying one of the pregnant women had been in the country for one month, Petersen put down four to five months. The adoptive parents said the $11,000 from Medicaid that went to her due to this was Petersen unjustly enriching himself. Prosecutors wanted a personal victim to showcase. But the adoptive parents weren’t victims.   

In Utah, he pled guilty to three counts of human smuggling and one count of communications fraud for not telling adoptive parents that he was breaking the law when he charged them for his services. But he didn’t think he was breaking the law.


Similarly, in Arkansas, he pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to smuggle illegal aliens for private financial gain. In reality, they weren’t illegal, Marshallese are allowed to come into the U.S. and don’t need visas. One of the FBI agents on the case, who had been involved with human smuggling cases for years, said it wasn’t human smuggling.

But Petersen could not bring up any defense against these counts, or he would not be allowed to take the plea. He had to say he knew what he was doing was wrong.  

No state bars have initiated a complaint against him. This is telling because state bars are notorious for going after attorneys for things unrelated to law, especially criminal prosecutions, and they aren’t concerned about holding off their investigation until after the prosecution has ended. Not to mention state bars are controlled by the left and have a history of targeting conservative attorneys.

Petersen will be sentenced to prison later this year. He is likely looking at a minimum of four to five years in prison, with multiple sentences running concurrently. This is unfortunate because many other people in his situation would have been dealt with civilly through the law, perhaps a fine and correcting paperwork. An adoption attorney from Hawaii in the business for 30 years using the same adoption practices with Marshallese pregnant mothers was not charged with anything. If his actions were so terrible, why was he allowed to conduct these types of adoptions from the Marshallese Islands going back to 2005? Usually, we think of powerful politicians being above the law — no matter what Hillary Clinton does, no one will prosecute her. But sometimes prosecutors set their sights on someone in elected office who they know they can easily take out, and then hold them up as an example of, “See, we go after elected officials too.”


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