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.
Russia called the charges a “cheap” propaganda stunt and said the investigation was illegal, adding to strains in ties between two countries at odds over accusations of rights abuses, politically motivated prosecutions and Russia’s sheltering of a former US spy agency contractor Edward Snowden.
According to the charges, filed last month and unsealed on Thursday, the diplomats’ families got about US$1.5 million in benefits from the Medicaid program for families with low monthly incomes — in many cases about US$3,000 or less.
The benefits covered costs related to pregnancies, births and infant care, the charges say.
The family members also 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, the charges said.
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.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov expressed disappointment that the US had not tried to discuss the charges with Russia through diplomatic channels.
“We categorically reject the charges,” Ryabkov said, according to the state-run Itar-Tass news agency. “We believe that shadowing diplomatic personnel ... is illegal.”
“If the American authorities had claims against our citizens ... they should have presented them through diplomatic channels. Instead they took the path of making it all public,” Ryabkov said. “This is nothing more than cheap PR.”
FBI spokesman 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 for US authorities to arrest the defendants. If no waiver is granted, Bharara said the US 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.
“We don’t think this should affect our bilateral relationship with Russia,” US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said at a regular briefing. “Quite frankly, there are too many important issues we have to work on together.”
The Russian mission to the UN was not immediately available for comment on the case.