(Adds summary of diplomatic positions in second paragraph,
comment from U.S. State Department in 12th and 13th paragraphs)
By Emily Flitter and Joseph Ax
NEW YORK Dec 5 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.
The charges come against a backdrop of tense exchanges
between Russia and the United States over law enforcement
actions in both countries. Russia's deputy foreign minister
expressed disappointment Thursday that the U.S. had not tried to
discuss the charges with Russia through diplomatic channels, but
a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department said she did not
expect the issue to harm relations between the two countries.
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 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 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.
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.
"We are puzzled by the stovepiping of information to the
media about accusations against Russian diplomatic mission
officials in the U.S.," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei
Ryabkov told Interfax news agency.
"One does not understand why the (U.S.) institutions
involved considered it possible to make these accusations public
without discussing (them) through diplomatic channels."
A spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Peter
Donald, said no one was arrested.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said at a Manhattan press
conference that the U.S. State Department would have had to
request a waiver of immunity from Russia in order for U.S.
authorities to arrest the defendants. If no waiver is granted,
Bharara said the 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.
Bharara declined to say how the charges might affect
U.S.-Russia relations. He said his office has not been in
contact with the White House.
The U.S. State Department said it did not believe the
charges should harm Washington's relations with Moscow but
declined comment on whether it would ask Russia to waive
diplomatic immunity for the current Russian diplomats charged or
on whether it might seek reimbursement for the monies paid to
them as a result of the alleged fraud.
"We don't think this should affect our bilateral
relationship with Russia," State Department spokeswoman Marie
Harf said at the State Department briefing in Washington. "Quite
frankly, there are too many important issues we have to work on
The Russian mission to the United Nations was not
immediately available for comment on the case.
LYING TO QUALIFY
The charges say the defendants obtained letters to prove
their false incomes from officials at the Russian U.N. 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 U.N., and
his wife Nailya Babaeva said they made $3,000 a month when
Salomatin's U.N. 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. Three dozen
of the defendants lived in Russian-owned housing in the Bronx,
according to the complaint.
Bharara said only 11 are still in the United States; ten are
diplomats with the Russian Mission to the U.N. and their
spouses, and one is now stationed at the Russian embassy in
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
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 some Americans, including some
U.S. Justice Department officials, from Russia. Bharara is among
those banned from Russia.
(Reporting by Emily Flitter and Joseph Ax; Additional reporting
by Michelle Nichols in New York, Arshad Mohammed in Washington
and Steve Gutterman and Alexei Anishchuk in Moscow; Editing by
David Gregorio, Andrew Hay, Tim Dobbyn and Phil Berlowitz)