Federal prosecutors have charged 49 Russian diplomats and their spouses with cheating Medicaid out of $1.5 million, which some of them used to buy concert tickets, helicopter rides and shopping sprees at Tiffany’s and Bloomingdale’s in New York.
Despite the charges, no arrests have been made and no trials are likely, as the Russians have dimplomatic immunity, prosecutors acknowledged. At most, the U.S. could expel the 11 of the 49 charged believed to still be in the country.
The charges come as relations between the U.S. and Russia have soured amid disagreements over Syria and Iran, but a State Department official in Washington downplayed the impact of Thursday’s actions in New York.
Each defendant is a current or former diplomat or spouse at Russia’s mission to the U.N., its consulate in New York or Moscow’s trade office in Manhattan.
Many of them lied about their incomes to qualify for the U.S. medical system designed for the poor, and some of their pregnant wives hid their Russian nationality when they gave birth in a New York hospital so they could claim their newborns were U.S. citizens, according to a criminal complaint by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan unsealed Thursday. Children of working diplomats are ineligible to claim U.S. citizenship.
“The investigation has revealed the systematic, fraudulent submission of falsified applications for Medicaid benefits associated with medical costs for pregnancy, birth and young children by Russian diplomats and the spouses of diplomats,” said FBI Special Agent Jeremy Robertson, who investigated the case.
He said the Russians used the federal benefits from 2004 through August of this year and spent “tens of thousands of dollars” on goods, including luxury items at posh Manhattan department stores.
Mr. Robertson said 58 of the 63 births attributed to Russian diplomats and their spouses in New York City between 2004 and 2013 were funded through Medicaid.
“Diplomacy should be about extending hands, not picking pockets in the host country,” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara told reporters.
The complaint alleged the diplomats and their spouses generally underreported household income in order to qualify for Medicaid but gave more accurate descriptions of salaries on credit card applications.
According to the Interfax news agency in Moscow, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said, “we are bewildered” that the charges were made public without consulting first with the Russian government.
“It’s not clear why the relevant agencies have considered it possible to make these accusations public before discussing them through diplomatic channels,” he said.
According to the Associated Press, Marie Harf, deputy spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, said at a daily Washington briefing that the charges should not affect relations with Russia.
“Quite frankly, there are too many important issues we have to work on together. The justice system will proceed in the way that it does here in the states, and we don’t think it should impact our relationship,” she said.