Paul Petersen, an elected county assessor for Maricopa County who is also an adoption lawyer licensed in Utah and Arizona, was charged with 11 felony counts including human smuggling, sale of a child, communications fraud, and pattern of unlawful activity, the Utah Attorney General's Office announced Tuesday.
The indictment states, "Petersen and Jennet facilitated travel for pregnant women from the Republic of the Marshall Islands to come to Arizona for the objective of giving a child up for adoption".
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich says the focus of the case is on the abuse of the system by Petersen.
Prosecutors say Petersen used associates there to recruit pregnant women by offering many of them $10,000 each to give up their babies for adoption.
Petersen's attorney, Matthew Long, defended his client's actions during a court hearing in Phoenix Wednesday.
Beginning as early as April of 2014 through March of 2015, Paul Petersen, a practicing attorney and elected official, is alleged to have wired money from a bank account in his name to another bank account belonging to a citizen of the Marshall Islands.
Authorities have also said Petersen violated the treaty agreement between the US and the Marshall Islands.
Authorities believe the adoptive families in the case were victims as well and do not plan to pursue any charges against the families or remove any children from completed adoptions.
The expecting mothers were often crowded in the homes, with Marshallese women Petersen employed helping with things like translation, transportation, legal documents and applications for Medicaid benefits, prosecutors said. In one of the residences in Utah, the women slept on mattresses laid on bare floors.
The new owner of the home, located in a working class area in suburban Salt Lake City, said that since purchasing it she has found trash like dirty diapers in the bushes.
Petersen also faces similar charges in Arizona and Arkansas.
"It makes me sick to my stomach", she said after being told how expectant mothers were allegedly herded inside the home.
In granting the injunction, Martin appointed Fayetteville attorney Andrea McCurdy to serve as an advocate representing all expecting biological mothers in Arkansas who were in the process of adoption with Petersen.
The Utah probe began after investigators got a call to a human-trafficking tip line in October 2017. Authorities said staff members at hospitals in Salt Lake City also reported an "influx" of women from the Marshall Islands giving birth and putting their babies up for adoption.
Authorities will not work to "unwind" any of the adoptions, which violated a compact banning Marshallese residents from traveling to the USA for adoptions without a special visa, Reyes said.