NEW YORK (TheBlaze/AP) — Forty-nine Russian diplomats and their wives scammed approximately $1.5 million out of Medicaid in a scheme spanning several years, according to charges made public Thursday by U.S. officials.
The Russian defendants -- current and former diplomats and their spouses at the Russian Mission to the United Nations, the Russian consulate and Russian trade offices -- submitted fraudulent applications for medical benefits for pregnancies, births and care for young children, the complaint alleges.
"Being a diplomat does not give you the right to commit health care fraud," said George Venizelos, head of the FBI's New York office.
FBI agent Jeremy Robertson described in court papers an 18-month investigation, saying investigators had discovered a pattern of falsified applications.
He 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, which is largely federally funded but includes money from state and local governments.
Pregnant women, no matter their immigration status, can get coverage under Medicaid, provided they meet other eligibility requirements, according to the New York Department of Health. Robertson said the diplomats and their spouses generally underreported household income to an amount below the applicable Medicaid eligibility level, and some of them lied about the citizenship status of their children to obtain continuing health coverage for them.
Meanwhile, the diplomats and their spouses spent tens of thousands of dollars on vacations, fancy watches, expensive jewelry and designer clothing at luxury retail stores including Bloomingdale's, Tiffany & Co., Jimmy Choo, Swarovski and others, the court papers said.
The complaint said they also spent tens of thousands of dollars on electronic merchandise at Apple Inc. stores and elsewhere. Authorities said they also bought concert tickets, robotic cleaning devices and chartered helicopters.
Only 11 of the diplomats and their spouses are currently in the United States. The complaint estimates that Medicaid lost about $1.5 million in the scheme since 2004.
Charges in the criminal complaint included conspiracy to commit health care fraud, conspiracy to steal government funds and make false statements relating to health care matters.
But don’t expect to see any arrests: According to U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, the case likely won’t go to trial because the defendants have immunity.
“We would be prosecuting and making arrests in, but for immunity," he said at a news conference Thursday. "Diplomacy should be about extending hands, not picking pockets in the host country.”
Still, he added, participation in crimes by diplomats generally leads to expulsion from a country.
The news has not gone over well with Russian officials who blame the criminal case on "Russophobic forces” determined to disrupt U.S.-Russia relations.
The charges are “no more than a cheap spin effort, no more than a desire to fulfill the order of Russophobic forces in the United States,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in an interview Thursday on Russia state news agency ITAR-Tass.
"We regret that attempt to stir up another conflict or dispute, particularly in view of the fact that Moscow and Washington recently have developed a good format of ties regarding big international issues. We wouldn't like to make such links, but in view of reaching some results in the sphere of settling major conflicts, some people in Washington needed to spoil the atmosphere. We can only assess it this way,” he said.
He added that the U.S. might have broken international law by surveilling foreign diplomats. Also, he added, U.S. diplomats aren't exactly always well-behaved themselves.
"We have many complaints about U.S. diplomats in Moscow, but we aren't taking them into the public domain," Ryabkov said.
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.
She added: "I don't think I would probably draw a broad generalization about our relationship with Russia based on a handful of some current Russian officials and some former who are charged with an alleged crime. I think the relationship is much bigger and deeper and broader and more complicated than that."
U.S.-Russia relations have been strained in recent months over Moscow's decision to grant asylum to admitted National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden and conflict regarding chemical weapons in Syria.
(H/T: The Wire)
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