— Domani Spero
In early December, Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and George Venizelos, the Assistant Director-in-Charge of the New York Field Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”), announced charges against 49 current or former Russian diplomats or spouses of diplomats employed at the Russian Mission in the United States for participating in a widespread fraud scheme from 2004 to August 2013 to illegally obtain nearly
$1.5 million dollars in Medicaid benefits. (See 49 Russian Diplomats/Spouses Charged With Picking Uncle Sam’s Pocket in Medicaid Scam).
On December 6, during the Daily Press Briefing, the State Department deputy spokesperson, Marie Harf said this:
“We routinely inform all foreign missions in the U.S. – most recently we did this in November – that we expect their personnel to maintain health insurance coverage. So under U.S. law, nonimmigrants, which diplomats fall under in this case, who meet certain eligibility criteria may apply for and receive federally funded medical care.”
Lest we get all excited, this is the same spokesperson, of course, who could not say what appropriate consular assistance is provided when an American citizen dies abroad. Or who says from the podium that “It’s not for any State Department official to sign off on any arrests, right, even regarding a foreign diplomat.” Whoops! (We heard that the Special Agents of the Diplomatic Security Service toppled over in their swivel chairs when the clip aired on YouTube).
Then on December 14, UPI reported that “Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said “some of the diplomats accused of glomming on to the U.S. healthcare system were actually entitled to do so.”
Entitled to do so? As in a legal right or a just claim to receive it?
On December 16, Interfax also reported that Moscow is “already taking disciplinary measures in relation to the Russian diplomats accused in the U.S. of unlawfully receiving Medicaid benefits to cover the pregnancy and childbirth costs.”
The report quotes Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov saying, “This is a disciplinary offence, because, by being insincere in filing applications and citing inaccurate figures to receive some benefits, they violated the host country’s norms and rules, which a diplomat has no right to do. I’d like to stress once again: they are being subjected and will be subjected to disciplinary action.” Now, the same report repeats this notion that some of the Russian diplomats were “entitled” to apply for such assistance due to their low income:
“We have looked into this. First, the allegation that none of them was entitled to this because they are foreigners is wrong. There are different laws in various states of the U.S. that allow for using Medicaid benefits by foreigners. Second, it is not quite true that the Russian diplomats’ incomes did not make them eligible for receiving such payments through Medicaid,” he said.
“We have studied the files of the said colleagues, and it turned out that at least some of them had salaries that entitled them to apply for such assistance from the U.S. fund at that moment.
How bonkers is that? That American taxpayers are subsidizing the health care cost of foreign diplomats in the United States. Which part of this makes sense? Medicaid is a federally funded program designed to assist low-income families afford health care. And in this case, if the allegations are true, Russian diplomats took public assistance that would have been helpful to low income Americans.
The big question now is — can we also call this foreign aid?
Now Congress wants to know Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is going on here. The SFRC is missing on this but U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, recently expressed “serious concern about foreign diplomats receiving, and reportedly defrauding, U.S. Government-funded benefits programs.” In his letter to Secretary Kerry, Chairman Royce requested a meeting plus written answers to the following questions:
1. How will the Administration treat the 11 named defendants who, according to the U.S. Attorney, remain in the United States? Will you ask the Russian government to waive their immunity so that they can be prosecuted? If not, will the Department declare them persona non grata?
2. How will the Administration treat the 38 named defendants who, according to the U.S. Attorney, no longer reside in the United States? Will you request that they be extradited to stand trial? If not, will the Department impose a U.S. visa ban on them?
3. How will the Administration treat the unindicted co-conspirators at Russian diplomatic offices in the U.S. who allegedly advised and assisted the named defendants by supplying false documentation to New York officials in support of the fraudulent Medicaid claims?
4. Will the Administration bill the Russian government for the Medicaid benefits its personnel fraudulently used? If not, how will New York State’s Medicaid program be compensated for the loss?
5. On December 5, 2013, Department of State Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf said, “We are still…reviewing the charges that were unsealed.” How closely did the U.S. Attorney, Department of Justice, or Federal Bureau of Investigation cooperate with the Department of State during the investigation? What steps did the U.S. Attorney take to coordinate with the Department of State before filing the complaint on November 18, 2013 or unsealing it on December 5, 2013?
This situation also raises a number of important questions about government programs that provide benefits to foreign diplomats. I therefore would appreciate written answers to the following questions not later than January 13, 2014:
6. On December 6, 2013, Department of State Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf stated that foreign diplomats in the United States “who meet certain eligibility criteria may apply for and receive federally funded medical care.” What are the medical programs for which foreign diplomats may be eligible? What are the eligibility criteria? Over the last 10 years, how many foreign diplomats have used these programs? What was the total cost of the benefits provided? Please provide these data sorted by foreign diplomatic mission or international organization.
7. Are foreign diplomats eligible for government-funded benefits other than Medicaid (e.g., Temporary Assistance to Needy Families or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)? If so, which programs and what are the eligibility criteria? Over the last 10 years, how many foreign diplomats have taken advantage of these programs? What was the total cost of the benefits provided? Please provide these data sorted by foreign diplomatic mission or international organization.
8. Is the Administration aware of other cases where foreign diplomats fraudulently or inappropriately obtained Medicaid or other government-funded benefits? Please provide the details of these cases, including the cost of any benefits that were inappropriately obtained.
9. What is the Administration doing to ensure that foreign diplomats cannot inappropriately obtain government-funded benefits in the future? Has the Administration asked relevant government benefit agencies to check their rolls for the names of foreign diplomats? Does the Department regularly provide a list of foreign diplomats to relevant government benefit agencies?
And — if some foreign diplomats in the United States are “eligible” for Medicaid, how about some of their underpaid domestic workers, are they eligible, too?
Oh, for god’s sakes, maybe the State Department should just publish a handbook of freebies.