NEW YORK, Dec. 5 (UPI) -- The FBI said Thursday in New York 49 current or former Russian diplomats or their spouses have been charged in a broad illegal scheme to get Medicaid benefits.
Some defendants, while allegedly cheating Medicaid, a program designed to help the U.S. poor, spent tens of thousands of dollars in illegal benefits on luxury items, including cruise vacations and purchases such as watches, shoes and jewelry, at stores such as Tiffany & Co., Jimmy Choo, Prada, Bloomingdale's and Burberry, the FBI said in New York.
The diplomats work or worked at the Russian Mission to the United Nations, the Russian Federation Consulate General in New York or the Trade Representative of the Russian Federation in the United States.
The indictment said the defendants or dozens of unnamed co-conspirators illegally obtained prenatal benefits and related services by, among other things, falsely underreporting their income or falsely claiming their children were citizens of the United States.
About $1.5 million in illegal benefits were obtained, the indictment alleged.
Each defendant was charged with one count of conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud and one count of conspiracy to steal government funds and make false statements on healthcare matters, which carry maximum sentences of 10 and five years in prison, respectively, the FBI said.
Of the 49 defendants, 11 are currently in the United States, U.S. officials said in a statement.
Five of those are diplomats working at the mission, and five are the spouses of the diplomats. One is currently employed at the Russian Federation's Embassy in Washington, but at the time of the alleged offenses was employed at the New York consulate, the FBI said.
The remaining 38 no longer reside in the United States.
The FBI statement did not deal with the issue of whether any of the defendants are protected by diplomatic immunity.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said diplomacy "should be about extending hands, not picking pockets in the host country. Here, as alleged, a multitude of Russian diplomats and their spouses ran a scam on a healthcare system designed to help Americans in need. As the complaint alleges, the scam exploited a weakness in the Medicaid system, and the charges expose shameful and systemic corruption among Russian diplomats in New York."