(CNN) - A former Arizona county assessor pleaded guilty to running an adoption fraud scheme that involved bringing pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to the United States to give birth, authorities said Thursday.
Paul Petersen, 45, was an adoption lawyer licensed in Utah and Arizona, and an elected assessor for Maricopa County.
Petersen pleaded guilty to three counts of fraudulent schemes and one count of forgery, all felonies in Arizona. He operated the international adoption scheme in Arizona, Arkansas and Utah, according to the the latter's office of the Attorney General.
In Utah, Petersen is accused of running an enterprise to transport pregnant Marshallese women to the state for adoptions. The women came from the islands in the central Pacific and were housed in residences he allegedly owned or leased.
He transported or secured transportation for more than 40 pregnant Marshallese women to Utah between August 2016 and August 2019, federal prosecutors said.
"The defendant collected proceeds from each adoption in the form of fees paid to him by adoptive parents," the documents said.
He resigned from his job and was arrested in October last year.
"While Paul Petersen enjoyed a position of respect and trust in the community, he manipulated adoptive families and bilked Arizona taxpayers for his own profit," Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich said. "Mr. Petersen must now answer for his crimes. It doesn't matter if you're politically connected, wealthy, or an elected official, the rule of law applies equally to everyone."
In Arizona, the scheme defrauded the state out of more than $814,000, according to the office of the state's attorney general.
As part of the plea agreement with the state, Petersen will pay $650,000 to the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, which is Arizona's Medicaid agency. He'll also pay $11,000 to an uncharged victim and $18,000 to the Arizona attorney general's office for investigative costs, Brnovich said.
In December, his co-defendant Lynwood Jennet pleaded guilty over her involvement in the adoption fraud scheme. As part of her plea agreement, Jennet agreed to testify against Petersen, Brnovich's office said.
After the adoptions, the women either moved to Arkansas or returned to the Marshall Islands. Petersen and Jennet are accused of directing the mothers to fraudulently misrepresent their residency status to obtain health care benefits.
Authorities in Arizona and Utah stressed they have no interest in interfering with adoptions that have already taken place. "They are not under investigation, and their adoptions are not in danger if they are complete," said Richard Piatt, a spokesman for the Utah attorney general.
Petersen faces three to 12.5 years in the Arizona Department of Corrections in his first case and up to four years in the second case, officials said.
He also faces a second criminal investigation over allegations he provided false information on the birth mothers' fees to prospective adoptive parents and to the Maricopa County Superior Court Juvenile Division.
In addition, he inflated the duration of time he paid for a birth mother's living expenses while charging the adoptive family.
In one example, authorities said, a family paid him $33,000 for an adoption. According to an affidavit, $11,000 was for living expenses after Petersen alleged he'd paid for the birth mother to live in Arizona for five months. In reality, the birth mother arrived in Arizona a day before she gave birth and only stayed for two weeks, officials said.
Jennet faces between two to four years in the Arizona Department of Corrections and is expected to have a sentencing hearing in August. A sentencing hearing for Petersen has not yet been scheduled.