By Marty Graham
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - A prominent California adoption lawyer was sentenced to federal prison on Friday for her role in running a baby-selling ring that placed unborn children of surrogate mothers with unrelated parents for up to $100,000 each.
Theresa Erickson pleaded guilty in August to a wire fraud conspiracy charge stemming from what authorities said was essentially an adoption mill that skirted state laws requiring surrogate mothers in California to sign contracts with their prospective clients before becoming pregnant.
She was sentenced to five months in federal prison and nine months of supervised home confinement, as well as a $70,000 fine and three years of supervised release. Erickson also was ordered to pay up to $400,000 in restitution.
Authorities said Erickson and two co-defendants collected fees from couples who thought they were paying in advance for parental custody of babies born to surrogate mothers and available for adoption because a surrogate's original clients had backed out of their contract.
In fact, the surrogate mothers had become pregnant through embryo implantations performed on them in the Ukraine as part of a scheme to create "an inventory of unborn babies" for unsuspecting U.S. couples desperate for an infant of their own, according to federal prosecutors.
Erickson, 43, admitted to filing false documents with the San Diego County Family Court to make the babies' supposed surrogacy arrangements acceptable to the court.
Had the babies been born without the faked surrogacy contracts and then placed with the families, those placements should have been treated as adoptions, which carry other requirements and costs.
Prosecutors said individuals who paid fees of up to $100,000 each to gain custody of children in at least 12 faked surrogacy deals did not understand the legal complexities involved.
The surrogate mothers themselves were also unwitting participants, with some of them ultimately blowing the whistle on the scheme.
As part of her plea agreement, Erickson admitted to earning about $70,000 in total profit from her illegal actions over a six-year period.
"The surrogacy laws were enacted to protect both unborn babies and parents seeking children," U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy said in a written statement. "Out of sheer greed, Erickson preyed upon people's most basic need: to raise a child."
Erickson was a nationally renowned attorney specializing in surrogacy and adoption issues who appeared on numerous television networks over the years, including ABC, NBC, CNN and the Fox News Channel.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Tim Gaynor)