At­tor­ney charged in adop­tion fraud case

Of­fi­cial: Is­lan­der women lured in

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - Front Page - DOUG THOMPSON

SPRINGDALE — As many as a dozen women at a time stayed in one Springdale home in an adop­tion fraud scheme in­volv­ing 30 or more preg­nant women a year, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Depart­ment of Jus­tice.

“Make no mis­take. This case is the purest form of hu­man traf­fick­ing,” said Duane “Dak” Kees, U.S. at­tor­ney for the West­ern Dis­trict of Arkansas.

Kees un­veiled a 19-count fed­eral grand jury in­dict­ment against Paul D. Petersen, 44, of Mesa, Ariz., at a 1 p.m. news con­fer­ence Wed­nes­day at Springdale City Hall.

Petersen’s law firm en­ticed preg­nant Mar­shall Is­lan­ders who were close to hav­ing their ba­bies to give up their chil­dren for adop­tion, paid their air­fare to the United States for that pur­pose and then gave them air­fare home, all in vi­o­la­tion of a spe­cific clause in a treaty with the is­lands’ govern­ment that for­bids travel solely for that pur­pose, ac­cord­ing to the in­dict­ment.

The fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­gan three years ago when the Wash­ing­ton County and Ben­ton County bar as­so­ci­a­tions told in­ves­ti­ga­tors that some­thing was amiss with the prac­tices of adop­tions han­dled by the Paul D. Petersen law firm, which has a mail­ing ad­dress and rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Fayet­teville,

Kees said.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion is not over, he said. More in­di­vid­u­als as­so­ci­ated with the Petersen firm and with other firms with sim­i­lar prac­tices are un­der fed­eral scru­tiny, he said.

The scheme started in 2014 and pos­si­bly ear­lier, ac­cord­ing to the in­dict­ment.

Petersen is also the elected county as­ses­sor of Mari­copa County, Ari­zona’s most pop­u­lous county.

De­fense at­tor­ney Matthew Long of Scottsdale, Ariz., who rep­re­sents Petersen, didn’t return a phone mes­sage Wed­nes­day. Tele­phone mes­sages to the Mesa and Fayet­teville of­fices of Petersen’s law firm also weren’t re­turned.

Some of the ex­pec­tant moth­ers who were close to giv­ing birth slept on the floor while housed four to a room, Kees said. They were en­ticed to North­west Arkansas from the Mar­shall Is­lands by prom­ises of money for giv­ing up their new­borns to par­ents seek­ing adop­tions through the Arkansas courts, ac­cord­ing to reports.

The adop­tive par­ents paid the ex­pec­tant moth­ers’ hous­ing and food ex­penses, which Petersen’s firm de­lib­er­ately in­flated, the in­dict­ment says. For in­stance, adop­tive par­ents paid lodg­ing ex­penses for the moth­ers when they were all stay­ing in the fam­ily home of Maki Take­hisa, 39, Petersen’s in­dicted co-con­spir­a­tor, the in­dict­ment says.

Take­hisa is named in four of the 19 counts in the in­dict­ment, which the grand jury re­turned Mon­day.

Hous­ing and food ex­penses were min­i­mal at the home, the in­dict­ment states.

“One of the moth­ers who co­op­er­ated with us said they were treated like prop­erty,” Kees said.

The ex­pec­tant moth­ers were told they would be well paid and well cared for, but were de­pen­dent upon Petersen’s law firm once they ar­rived in the United States, he said.

Petersen was be­ing held Wed­nes­day in lieu of a $500,000 cash bond in the Mari­copa County jail on state charges in Ari­zona. Sim­i­lar hous­ing of preg­nant women there led to 32 state charges based on Petersen’s prac­tice of en­rolling those women for Ari­zona Med­i­caid ben­e­fits for which they weren’t el­i­gi­ble since they were only tem­po­rary Ari­zona res­i­dents, ac­cord­ing to reports.

Petersen also faces 11 sim­i­lar charges in Utah, that state’s at­tor­ney gen­eral an­nounced. Petersen is li­censed to prac­tice law in Ari­zona, Utah and Arkansas, ac­cord­ing to his law firm’s web­site.

“Petersen is ac­cused of us­ing false in­for­ma­tion to place the Mar­shallese women on state-funded health care in or­der to pay for de­liv­ery costs, bilk­ing the state out of more than $814,000,” said a state­ment re­leased by Ari­zona At­tor­ney Gen­eral Mark Brnovich.

The only fed­eral case is be­ing pur­sued in Arkansas be­cause the fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion started here, Kees said. Petersen will have an ap­pear­ance in fed­eral court in Fayet­teville, ten­ta­tively set for Oct. 29, Kees said. Arkansas At­tor­ney Gen­eral Les­lie Rut­ledge at­tended Wed­nes­day’s news con­fer­ence. Kees said state charges in Arkansas have not been ruled out.

The adop­tive par­ents in these cases, which fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors be­lieve to be in the hun­dreds, aren’t be­lieved to have been aware of the fraud scheme and aren’t tar­gets of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Kees said. It ap­pears their adop­tions are bind­ing un­der Arkansas law.

“Mr. Kees is right in that this is a com­plex is­sue” on pa­ter­nal rights of the chil­dren in­volved, said Josh Bryant of Rogers, a pri­vate at­tor­ney,

The adop­tive par­ents in these cases, which fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors be­lieve to be in the hun­dreds, aren’t be­lieved to have been aware of the fraud scheme and aren’t tar­gets of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Kees said. It ap­pears their adop­tions are bind­ing un­der Arkansas law.

adop­tive par­ent and long­time ad­vo­cate of adop­tion re­form. He and state Rep. Clint Penzo, R-Springdale, co-wrote bill in the pre­vi­ous leg­isla­tive ses­sion to over­haul adop­tion, but failed to get it passed.

“Nor­mally an adop­tion would be fi­nal af­ter six months un­der any nor­mal cir­cum­stances,” Bryant said. “But the is­sue of fraud and de­cep­tion here might make a dif­fer­ence. If it does, though, the guid­ing prin­ci­ple the courts fol­low is the best in­ter­est of the child. The best in­ter­est of the child will al­most al­ways be to stay at home.”

With the scheme start­ing in 2014, chil­dren in­volved could be preschool­ers by now.

Take­hisa of 2006 Car­di­nal Drive in Springdale was charged Wed­nes­day with one count each of money laun­der­ing and mail fraud. Take­hisa also was charged ear­lier this year in U.S. Dis­trict Court in Fayet­teville with aid­ing and abet­ting alien smug­gling, a

of the Com­pact of Free As­so­ci­a­tion.

Mar­shall Is­lands cit­i­zens can travel to the United States un­der the com­pact, a treaty be­tween the two coun­tries. The United States ad­min­is­tered the is­lands for years af­ter World War II and used a por­tion of those is­lands for atomic bomb tests. Some of the rights ex­tended to Mar­shall Is­lan­ders were a form of rec­om­pense for those tests, ac­cord­ing to an interview last year with Eldon Alik, con­sulate gen­eral for the Mar­shall Is­lands, who has an of­fice in Springdale.

Four women told author­i­ties that they went to North­west Arkansas specif­i­cally to have their ba­bies for adop­tion, ac­cord­ing to a com­plaint in Take­hisa’s first case. Two said Take­hisa of­fered to pay them $10,000, pay their air­fare and put them up at a house in Springdale un­til they gave birth. One said she was paid only $6,000, the other $4,000. The money was paid in cash by Take­hisa af­ter the ba­bies were born, they said.

The ma­jor­ity of adop­tions ap­proved in Wash­ing­ton County are for Mar­shallese chil­dren, court of­fi­cials say. While North­west Arkansas has the largest con­cen­tra­tion of Mar­shallese in the con­ti­nen­tal United States, they are still a mi­nor­ity. The high rate of Mar­shallese adop­tions in North­west Arkansas and else­where has for years drawn con­cern from judges in Wash­ing­ton County and Ben­ton County, Cir­cuit Judge Doug Martin said in an interview last year.

“Nine out of 10 adop­tions I do are for a Mar­shallese child,” Martin said at the time.

The large num­ber of Mar­shallese women giv­ing up their chil­dren for adop­tion caused wide­spread con­cern among le­gal, med­i­cal and ad­vo­cacy com­mu­ni­ties in North­west Arkansas in 2015. They wor­ried that some of the women were sign­ing doc­u­ments in a lan­guage they didn’t un­der­stand and may not have known that they had no rights to the child once the baby was adopted.

Com­mu­nity lead­ers openly ques­tioned whether the women knew all of their rights, such as the right to with­draw con­sent for an adop­tion. Oth­ers ex­pressed con­cern about how the ex­pec­tant moth­ers were re­im­bursed for ex­penses re­lated to their preg­nan­cies.

Bring­ing any Mar­shallese par­ents or par­ents-to-be to the United States from the is­lands for the pur­pose of car­ry­ing through adop­tions breaches a 2003 amend­ment to the com­pact be­tween the two coun­tries that al­lows travel with­out visas.

There are con­cerns even in cases where a Mar­shall Is­lan­der has lived in the United States for years, said Alik and Melisa Lae­lan, a Mar­shallese lan­guage in­ter­preter for re­gional courts and an ad­vo­cate for Arkansas’ is­lan­der pop­u­la­tion. They were in­ter­viewed on the topic last year.

Adop­tive moth­ers are rarely rep­re­sented by their own at­tor­neys, Alik and Lae­lan said. The adop­tions are most of­ten ar­ranged through at­tor­neys of the prospec­tive par­ents. The Mar­shallese govern­ment is ea­ger to see that the rights of its cit­i­zens are pro­tected, Alik said.

The cul­tural dif­fer­ence be­tween adop­tion in the Mar­shall Is­lands and in the United States is well-known, Alik and Lae­lan said.

“I was adopted, and I saw my real par­ents all the time,” Alik said. In the is­lands, adop­tion is an open sys­tem where all par­ties main­tain a close re­la­tion­ship.

In the United States, though, a woman who gives up a child for adop­tion for­feits her rights as a par­ent. For in­stance, there is no right to visi­ta­tion or hav­ing any role in the child’s rais­ing. The Mar­shallese govern­ment wants to en­sure that its cit­i­zens are fully aware of what they are giv­ing up and sus­pects that is of­ten not the case. Even an adop­tive par­ent who re­al­izes the dif­fer­ence or who has doubts to­ward the end of the process may fear the reper­cus­sions of back­ing out of a deal.

The Mar­shallese govern­ment on the is­lands has be­gun tak­ing a more pro­tec­tive stance, Alik said.

In March, Mar­shall Is­lands of­fi­cials charged a Springdale man, Justin Aine, with hu­man traf­fick­ing, ac­cord­ing to the Mar­shall Is­lands Journal. Kees said Wed­nes­day that Aine’s case and Petersen’s are linked, but he de­clined to com­ment on how, and whether the Mar­shallese govern­ment will file any charges in the Petersen case.

Aine, 46, was charged by the as­sis­tant at­tor­ney gen­eral with one count each of traf­fick­ing in per­son, un­law­ful so­lic­i­ta­tion and mone­tary in­duce­ment, ac­cord­ing to an ar­ti­cle in the Journal.

Aine is ac­cused of re­cruit­ing Su­san Ko­raja by giv­ing her $120 cash and the prom­ise of $10,000 in ex­change for her giv­ing up her 1-month-old for adop­tion when they reached the United States, ac­cord­ing to the news­pa­per. Charged along with Aine were Aiti “Hatty” Anidrep, 49, and Sally Abon, 53.

Aine promised Ko­raja he would help her fam­ily move to the United States if she gave up her child for adop­tion, ac­cord­ing to the Journal.

In Ben­ton County and Wash­ing­ton County, at least four Mar­shallese women since 2015 have been con­victed of fraud in­volv­ing adop­tions. In all of the cases, the preg­nant women ac­cepted money from two sets of would-be par­ents and failed to give up the child af­ter birth.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/ DAVID GOTTSCHALK

“Make no mis­take. This case is the purest form of hu­man traf­fick­ing,” Duane “Dak” Kees, U.S. at­tor­ney for the West­ern Dis­trict of Arkansas, said Wed­nes­day in Springdale.

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