New York, Dec 6: Manhattan's Indian-American attorney Preet Bharara, also known as the "Sheriff of Wall Street", has now charged 49 Russian diplomats and their spouses with scamming Medicaid out of $1.5 million over a decade.
The 49 current or former Russian diplomats and their spouses living in New York City were Thursday accused of participating in a widespread fraud scheme to illegally obtain benefits under Medicaid, a government health care programme for low-income families.
They did so from 2004 to August 2013 by among other things, falsely underreporting their income or falsely claiming that their child was a citizen of the United States, federal prosecutors said.
Even as they underreported their income to receive Medicaid benefits, they spent tens of thousands of dollars on cruise vacations and buying expensive watches, shoes, and jewellery, at luxury stores like Tiffany & Co., Jimmy Choo, Prada, Bloomingdale's, and Burberry, prosecutors said.
In one instance, Andrey Artasov said he made just $34,800 a year but with his wife spent more than $48,000 in 2008 on items that included Apple products and Swarovski jewellery, they said.
"Diplomacy should be about extending hands, not picking pockets in the host country," said Bhrara at a press conference alleging that "a multitude of Russian diplomats and their spouses ran a scam on a health care system designed to help Americans in need."
"The scam exploited a weakness in the Medicaid system, and the charges expose shameful and systemic corruption among Russian diplomats in New York," he said.
The US "government values its long-standing relationship with foreign diplomats and diplomatic establishments for cooperation on many issues," said FBI Assistant Director in Charge George Venizelos.
"Unfortunately," he said, "some Russian officials in New York allowed these defendants to take advantage of that relationship."
None of the defendants are in custody as they enjoy diplomatic immunity although 11 still reside in the US with six of them representing Russia in New York.
Bharara said he expects the US State Department to request that Russia waive diplomatic immunity for the alleged fraudsters.
If Russia refuses, as is likely, the State Department could request that the defendants still in the US leave the country.
In Washington, State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said they were still "reviewing the charges" and "We're not yet in a position to speak to the types of specifics about what might happen. Obviously, there is a legal procedure that will be unfolding from this point."
Asked if the issue would affect US ties with Rsussia, she said: "I think the relationship is much bigger and deeper and broader and more complicated than that."