By Emily Flitter
NEW YORK, Dec 5 (Reuters) - U.S. 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.
According to the charges, filed in November and unsealed on Thursday, the diplomats' families got around $1.5 million in benefits from the Medicaid program for families with very low monthly incomes - in many cases around $3,000 or less. The benefits covered costs related to pregnancies, births and infant care, the charges say.
Meanwhile, according to the charges, the family members spent 'tens of thousands of dollars' on vacations, jewelry and luxury goods from stores like Swarovski and Jimmy Choo.
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.
A spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Peter Donald, said no one was arrested.
A person briefed on the matter said the diplomats all had diplomatic immunity and Russia would have to waive it in order for any arrests to be made. The person said U.S. prosecutors had coordinated with the U.S. State Department on the case.
A spokeswoman for the State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Another person familiar with the matter said only a small number of the people charged were still living in the United States.
The Russian mission to the United Nations was not immediately available for comment on the case.
TRYING TO QUALIFY
The charges say the defendants obtained letters to prove their false incomes from officials at the Russian UN mission, including a former counselor and a former second secretary, as well as from former top officials at the Consulate General of the Russian Federation in New York and the Trade Representation of the Russian Federation in the USA.
Only two of the seven officials who allegedly signed off on the income letters are identified in the charges by name. The other five are referred to as unidentified co-conspirators.
Timur Salomatin, a former Russian diplomat at the UN, and his wife Nailya Babaeva, said they made $3,000 a month when Salomatin's UN salary was actually $5,160 per month, according to the charges.
Another couple, Andrey Kalinin and Irina Shirshova, lied about their income and monthly housing costs in order to be deemed eligible for Medicaid and also sought benefits from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, which subsidizes the cost of some types of foods and education. According to the charges, the family received more than $23,000 in Medicaid benefits over about three years.
Some families also lied about their newborns' citizenship status, the charges say, because children born to many diplomats and their spouses do not automatically acquire U.S. citizenship the way others do.
Hundreds of Russian diplomats and their families live in a compound in the Riverdale neighborhood in the Bronx.
Russia has in recent years accused the United States of biased and politically motivated prosecution of its citizens, including jailed arms dealer Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot sentenced to 20 years in prison for drug trafficking.
In response to a U.S. law enacted in December 2012 that bars Russians seen as human rights abusers from entering the United States, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed off that same month on a similar law barring Americans, including some U.S. Justice Department officials, from Russia.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office brought the healthcare fraud charges, is among those banned from Russia.
(Reporting by Emily Flitter; Additional reporting my Michelle Nichols, Steve Gutterman and Nate Raymond; Editing by David Gregorio and Andrew Hay) Keywords: USA RUSSIA/HEALTHFRAUD
(Emily.Flitter@thomsonreuters.com)(+1 646 223 6310)(Reuters Messaging: email@example.com)
Copyright Thomson Reuters 2013. All rights reserved.
The copying, republication or redistribution of Reuters News Content, including by framing or similar means, is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Thomson Reuters.