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NEW YORK — Federal law enforcement authorities have charged nearly 50 past or present Russian diplomats and their spouses in a $1.5 million Medicaid fraud scheme, an unusual twist in what has become a familiar criminal story line in New York.

An FBI investigation revealed “the systemic fraudulent submission of falsified applications for Medicaid benefits” by the diplomats and their spouses, according to a criminal complaint made public on Thursday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

The diplomats and their spouses obtained the benefits for pregnancies, births and first-year-of-life medical needs, generally applying at the same New York hospital, which was not identified, the complaint says.

“Diplomacy should be about extending hands, not picking pockets in the host country,” said Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, who, along with George Venizelos, the head of the New York office of the FBI, detailed the charges at a news conference Thursday.

Unlike other news briefings by Bharara, this one was not followed by the appearances in court of the defendants; because those charged are diplomats and their spouses, they have diplomatic immunity.

But Bharara noted that the State Department could seek a waiver of immunity from the Russian government to allow a prosecution to go forward.

Russian officials were not immediately available for comment.

Of the 63 births to Russian diplomats and their spouses in New York City between 2004 and 2013, 58 of those families, or 92 percent, were paid for by Medicaid benefits, the complaint says.

The complaint cites an 18-month investigation of the defendants’ Medicaid applications that revealed “general patterns of misrepresentations, which allowed them to qualify for Medicaid.”

The defendants, for example, underreported their household income at an amount below the applicable Medicaid eligibility level in order to qualify for the benefits, the complaint charges.

At the same time, they were spending tens of thousands of dollars on luxury goods and vacations, including the purchase of jewelry, watches, clothes and shoes at Jimmy Choo, Tiffany & Co. and Bloomingdale’s, according to the complaint.

The diplomats and spouses charged in the case currently or formerly worked at such offices as the Russian Mission to the United Nations and the Russian Consulate.

For years, insurance fraud schemes in New York and elsewhere have often been dominated by immigrants from the former Soviet Union.