US charges 49 Russian diplomats with Medicaid fraud worth $1.5mn

US charges 49 Russian diplomats with Medicaid fraud worth $1.5mn
US prosecutors have filed charges against 49 Russian diplomats, including some of the most senior figures in the New York mission. They and their families are accused of feigning poverty, while spending “tens of thousands” on luxury clothes and holidays.

“Diplomacy should be about extending hands, not picking pockets in the host country,” said Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, who led an 18-month investigation, at a televised press conference.

According to the indictment, the diplomats are suspected of engaging in “general patterns of misrepresentations”, including grossly underreporting their incomes, and falsely claiming their children have US citizenship to receive free healthcare.

The indictment alleges that since 2004, out of 63 births, 58 were performed for free, using the Medicaid provision.

Normally, families have to report a monthly income of below $3,000 to be eligible, but the investigators claim that some of the diplomats earned in excess of $5,000 a month per person. The total sum of the aid ran into tens of thousands of dollars for many of the accused.

In a tidbit included as if to purposely draw media attention, the charge sheet lists some of the expenses of the couples receiving Medicaid. These include luxury watches, jewellery from Tiffany’s, Jimmy Choo shoes, and “robotic cleaning devices.” The indictment also points out discrepancies between the US bank accounts of Russian diplomats, and their stated incomes on Medicaid application forms.

Image from justice.gov


Russia’s New York consulate initially expressed “deep reservations” about the validity of the charges to RIA news agency, then later withdrew its comments, saying it needs a chance to study the accusations.

The foreign ministry in Moscow declared itself “miffed” as to why the indictment was made public “without consultation through diplomatic channels." “We have a lot of claims to American diplomats in Moscow, but we are not making them public,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said.

The US State Department was aware of the lawsuit, according to Bharara, and voiced no objections to unsealing the indictment.

The indictment lists senior officials – including the current first and second secretary of the New York mission – but most of those involved have already been rotated out of the United States. The remaining consulate staff possess diplomatic immunity, and the US would have to ask Russia to lift it if any arrests were to be made.

The US State Department has already released a statement declaring that the incident will not affect its relationship with Russia, but it is almost inevitable that it will intensify the persistent friction between Moscow and Washington.

The figure of Preet Bharara is likely to prove particularly incendiary.

Bharara is currently banned from entering Russia for “human rights violations” – for previous involvement in the lawsuit against Viktor Bout, who has been convicted in the US for arms smuggling.

The ban was a response to the Magnitsky Act passed by Congress a year ago – which placed entry restrictions on officials involved in the case of Russian lawyer Sergey Magnitsky, who worked for a British investment fund and died in prison while under investigation for tax fraud.