NEW YORK (TIP): US prosecutors have charged 49 current and former Russian diplomats and their family members with participating in a scheme to get health benefits intended for the poor by lying about their income. The charges come against a backdrop of tense exchanges between Russia and the United States over law enforcement actions in both countries. According to the charges, filed in November and unsealed on Thursday, the diplomats’ families got around $1.5 million in benefits from the Medicaid program for families with low monthly incomes – in many cases around $3,000 or less. The benefits covered costs related to pregnancies, births and infant care, the charges say. Meanwhile, according to the charges, the family members had their housing costs paid for by the Russian government and spent “tens of thousands of dollars” on vacations, jewelry and luxury goods from stores like Swarovski and Jimmy Choo.
Each of the 49 people was charged with one count of conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud and one count of conspiracy to steal government funds and make false statements relating to healthcare matters, according to the charges. “We are puzzled by the stovepiping of information to the media about accusations against Russian diplomatic mission officials in the US,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Interfax news agency. “One does not understand why the (US) institutions involved considered it possible to make these accusations public without discussing (them) through diplomatic channels.” A spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Peter Donald, said no one was arrested. US attorney Preet Bharara said at a Manhattan press conference that the US State Department would have had to request a waiver of immunity from Russia in order for US authorities to arrest the defendants.
If no waiver is granted, Bharara said the State Department can insist that the defendants leave the country. “Diplomacy should be about extending hands, not picking pockets in the host country,” he said. Bharara declined to say how the charges might affect US-Russia relations. He said his office has not been in contact with the White House. A spokeswoman for the State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Russian mission to the United Nations was not immediately available for comment on the case. The charges say the defendants obtained letters to prove their false incomes from officials at the Russian UN mission, including a former counselor and a former second secretary, as well as from former top officials at the Consulate General of the Russian Federation in New York and the Trade Representation of the Russian Federation in the USA.