Paul Petersen, a Republican who served as metro Phoenix's assessor for six years and also worked as an adoption attorney, illegally paid women from the Pacific island nation to come to the U.S. to give up their babies in at least 70 adoptions cases in Arizona, Utah and Arkansas, prosecutors said.
Marshall Islands citizens have been prohibited from traveling to the U.S. for adoption purposes since 2003 and prosecutors said Petersen's scheme lasted three years.
Judge Timothy Brooks, who imposed the sentence from Fayetteville, Arkansas, said Petersen abused his position as an attorney by misleading or instructing others to lie to courts in adoptions that wouldn't have been approved had the truth been told to them.
The judge said Petersen turned what should be joyous adoption occasions into "a baby-selling enterprise." He also described Petersen's adoption practice as a "criminal livelihood" and said he ripped off taxpayers at the same time he was elected to serve them.
Brooks rejected Petersen's claims that he initially thought he was acting within the bounds of the law, but later realized what he was doing was illegal.
"You knew that lying and making these false statements to immigration officials and state courts was wrong," said Brooks, who gave Petersen two years longer in prison than sentencing guidelines recommended.
Appearing by videoconference, Petersen told the judge that his actions in the Arkansas case weren't indicative of who he is as a person and offered an apology to any birth mothers who felt disrespected by his treatment of them.
Petersen said he was horrified to learn that subordinates he did not name during the hearing had mistreated birth mothers, though he claimed he didn't know about it at the time and did not condone it.
"I take responsibility for my lack of oversight," said Petersen said.
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