SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake defense attorney Scott Williams says his client, Paul D. Petersen, has been helping to create happy families for 15 years.
“Mr. Petersen did not break the law. Will not be found guilty. If he has to go to verdict he will be found not guilty,” Williams said Friday in the hallway of the Matheson Courthouse.
On Friday, Petersen, 44, the Maricopa County assessor accused of running an illegal adoption scheme in three states including Utah and smuggling at least 40 pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to the U.S. and paying them $10,000 to place their babies up for adoption, made his initial appearance in a Utah courtroom.
In Utah, Petersen faces 11 felonies including human smuggling, sale of a child, communications fraud and engaging in a pattern of unlawful activity.
During his brief hearing in 3rd District Judge Linda Jones’ courtroom on Friday, Williams asked that his client’s bail conditions in Utah be modified so as not to conflict with bail conditions in Arizona, and stated that he was in negotiations with the state to settle the assets forfeiture claim the state is seeking on Petersen’s Utah property.
A three-day preliminary hearing was scheduled to begin Feb. 10.
Outside the courtroom, Williams condemned the way he said Petersen has been “villified” in the media. Specifically, he called out comments made by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Apostle Ronald Rasband, a member of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. In a meeting with the editorial board of the Arizona Republic, Elder Rasband called the allegations “sickening” and said he was “disgusted” by Petersen’s actions, according to a report in the Arizona Republic.
Williams called the comments made by both prosecutors and Elder Rasband “offensive to due process. This case is one that no one knows the facts or circumstance yet and they shouldn’t be making conclusions,” Williams said.
Church spokesman Doug Andersen countered that characterization. He said “Elder Rasband’s response was given in a context of ‘if these allegations are true’ (the context in which the question was asked of him). The church leaves the roles of investigation and criminal prosecution to the appropriate authorities.”
Williams said Petersen, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has had many people, including those from the Marshall Islands, come out in support of him.
He added that Petersen has done everything out in the open and that all of his bank accounts and properties are registered in his own name.
“Everybody knows what he’s been doing. ... He’s been hiding nothing,” Williams said.
Petersen did not make any comments outside the courtroom Friday based on the advice from his attorney.
Rich Piatt, spokesman for the Utah Attorney General’s Office, responded Friday by saying his office was “very confident” in its case.
In addition to being county assessor in Maricopa, Arizona, Petersen is an adoption lawyer licensed to practice in Utah, Arizona and Arkansas. He was arrested in Arizona on Oct. 8.
In Arizona, Petersen faces 29 counts of fraudulent schemes — including scamming Arizona’s Medicaid system — and three counts of conspiracy, theft and forgery.
Petersen faces a 19-count indictment in Arkansas, including charges of human smuggling, visa fraud, mail fraud and money laundering.
Williams said Friday it was not completely clear how all the cases would proceed from here or which jurisdiction would have priority, though he noted traditionally federal charges take precedence. However, he said there are traditionally delays in high-profile cases like this one.
“It’s extremely challenging to be fighting a three-headed beast,” he said.