Petersen sentencing looms on federal costs, and Arizona says it is not a part of any deal to chop jail time – The Arizona Republic
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Paul Petersen and his lawyers claim to have brokered a three-way deal to limit his prison time on human trafficking and fraud charges and to ensure he spends most of it in a federal penitentiary.
But Arizona authorities aren’t offering any get-out-of-jail early cards. The Arizona Attorney General’s Office said Monday it is not party to any agreement to cut the sentence for the former Maricopa County assessor.
The charges Petersen faces in Arizona in connection with an illegal international adoption businessare separate from state charges he faces in Utah and federal charges in Arkansas, an office spokesman told The Arizona Republic.
So, too, are Petersen’s plea deals.
“The Arizona sentencing agreement is completely devoid of any concurrent language or a global settlement,” spokesperson Ryan Anderson said. “The attorney general has not agreed to that.”
That means Pettersen, who was scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday in Arkansas, could end up serving back-to-back sentences in federal and state prison rather than doing all of his time at once in a federal prison.
Petersen in June pleaded guilty in Arizona, Arkansas and Utah to using his private adoption business to illegally transport pregnant women from the Republic of the Marshall Islands to the United States.
In Arizona, Petersen admitted fraudulently enrolling the birth mothers in Medicaid and cheating the state’s health care system for the poor out of more than $800,000. He also admitted forging documents to jack up the fees he charged adoptive parents.
In Arkansas and Utah, he pleaded guilty to human smuggling charges.
Petersen’s attorney, Kurt Altman, did not return calls or emails seeking comment Monday.
Altman told an Arizona judge in September “three different prosecuting agencies” had signed off the agreement.
He said the goal was to get Petersen sentenced in federal court in Arkansas before being sentenced on state charges in Arizona or Utah. That way he does his time in federal prison, “whatever time that may be.”
Petersen faces up to 10 years in Arkansas, 15 years in Utah and about 16.5 years in Arizona.
Altman said state prosecutors in Utah and federal prosecutors in Arkansas agreed to sentence Petersen concurrently with whatever sentence he is given in Arizona.
Despite Altman’s assurances that all three cases were tied together as part of one deal, Petersen’s plea agreement in Arizona contained no such language. State prosecutors confirmed they had not agreed to allow Petersen to serve sentences concurrently.
Officials said sentencing would be up to the court.
Petersen was scheduled for sentencing in Utah Jan. 20 and in Arizona Jan. 22.
Website set up to raise money for defense costs
Petersen’s parents maintain online that he was forced to take a guilty plea. They have established a website to help raise funds for his defense.
Petersen’s father, David, was forced to resign as Arizona treasurer in 2006 as part of a plea deal that allowed him to plead guilty to one misdemeanor count of failing to report income from a nonprofit group.
The Petersen defense website prominently features attorney Sidney Powell, who was ousted from President Donald Trump’s legal team after a Nov. 19 nationally televised news conference in which she spun a baseless conspiracy theory about election fraud.
The website contends Petersen spent “20 years doing good” and “facilitated the legally approved adoptions of five hundred children into homes with parents who wanted them.”
The website says Petersen was wrongly accused of defrauding the state’s Medicaid system and indicates he has reimbursed the state. The website says taxpayers should not be forced to pay for Petersen’s prosecution and incarceration.
“The only victims are Paul, his family, and the taxpayers,” according to the website.
As part of his plea agreement, Petersen agreed to pay $679,000 in restitution and fees. That includes $650,000 to the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, $18,000 to the Attorney General’s Office and $11,000 to the adoptive family he overcharged.
Authorities seized Petersen’s money, real estate and other assets after his arrest. The defense website also directs supporters to sign a petition to overturn asset seizure laws in Arizona. The effort appears tied to a failed legislative attempt Petersen’s supporters mounted in May.
Petersen’s wife, Raquel “Rocky” Petersen, filed for divorce in 2019, claiming her husband secretly used their joint money “for his own personal benefit,” according to court documents.
She testified at a legislative committee hearing in May in favor of changing asset seizure laws.
She said the seizures forced her and her kids out of their family home — a 4,500-square-foot house in a gated community in Mesa worth about $800,000 — because they no longer could afford the mortgage and utilities.
Rocky Petersen also said the forfeiture depleted her ex-husband’s ability to defend himself in court.
A pipeline of adoptions of Marshallese babies
Petersen was elected assessor in 2014 and again in 2016. His taxpayer-funded salary was about $77,000 per year. At the same time, he operated a law practice focused on adoptions.
He resigned as assessor in January to focus on his defense.
Petersen was arrested in October 2019. Authorities said he created a pipeline to bring Marshallese women to the U.S., arranged for them to give birth in local hospitals and set up adoptions of their babies to American families for up to $40,000 each.
According to state investigators, Petersen and his associates lied about the residency status of birth mothers so they could illegally access the health-care benefits. Marshallese citizens are not eligible for Medicaid unless they have lived in the U.S. for five years.
Between November 2015 and May 2019, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the state’s Medicaid agency, paid for at least 29 births, according to Petersen’s indictment. Adoption contracts show Petersen attempted to use the Medicaid system in other states as well.
He and co-defendant Lynwood Jennet originally were charged in Arizona with 32 counts related to Medicaid fraud. Jennet served as Petersen’s liaison for the Marshallese women and lived with them in a Mesa fourplex.
Petersen spent the months leading up to his guilty pleas proclaiming his innocence and vowing publicly to fight the charges.
Jennet pleaded guilty in December to conspiracy, fraud, theft and failure to file a tax return. As part of a plea deal, she agreed to turn state’s evidence against Petersen.
A Republic investigation in April found 20 of the Marshallese women gave birth at Banner Gateway Medical Center in Mesa.
The women were admitted to the hospital within weeks of arriving in the U.S. Most did not speak English. They listed the same addresses on Medicaid forms. Yet Banner officials continued filing Medicaid paperwork for the women and submitting reimbursement claims to the state, records show.
Jennet told authorities Petersen instructed her to take the women to Ernesto Gomez, a Mesa obstetrician who contracted with Petersen’s office to provide prenatal care.
Gomez has declined to speak to The Republic about his relationship with Petersen.
Contracts, texts, emails and internal documents obtained by The Republic showed Petersen treated birth mothers and their children like monetary transactions.
He moved multiple women in and out of homes he owned in Mesa and outside Salt Lake City and Springdale, Arkansas, took cuts for living expenses out of money he promised birth mothers and made them live in cramped, squalid conditions.
Petersen’s adoption practice was rooted in his 1998 mission to the Marshall Islands for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
A top church official said he was disgusted and sickened by the details of Petersen’s case.
Robert Anglen investigates consumer issues for The Republic. If you’re the victim of fraud, waste or abuse, reach him at email@example.com or 602-444-8694. Follow him on Twitter @robertanglen
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