Russian diplomats charged with US benefits fraud

Preet Bharara, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, appeared in New York on 28 May 2013 Preet Bharara, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, filed charges against the 49 suspects (file photo)

New York City prosecutors have charged 49 Russian diplomats and their family members in connection with a nine-year health benefits fraud.

They are accused of receiving more than $1.5m (£918,780) in Medicaid funds meant for low-income families.

US officials say the defrauded benefits related to pregnancy, birth and infant care. No arrests have been made.

The suspects allegedly spent tens of thousands of dollars on luxury goods, holidays, gigs and helicopter rides.

'Shameful corruption'

During the time of the alleged fraud, the accused were buying jewellery, clothing and gadgets at retailers such as Bloomingdale's, Jimmy Choo, Swarovski, Apple and Tiffany & Co, according to the criminal complaint.

It is alleged that the accused falsified household income and provided inaccurate information on Medicaid forms.

Preet Bharara, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, called it "shameful and systemic corruption".

"Diplomacy should be about extending hands, not picking pockets in the host country," he said.

The court documents were filed in the Southern District of New York in November and released on Thursday.

Only 11 of the 49 suspects are said to remain in the US, and all the diplomats facing charges currently have immunity.

Russia would have to waive such immunity for any arrests to be made.

Moscow has accused the US of politically motivated prosecutions of its citizens in recent years.

In 2010, a Russian pilot was detained in Liberia for alleged drug smuggling, and extradited to New York.

The Russian foreign ministry accused the US of abducting Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was later sentenced to 20 years in prison.

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