In April, five employees of the state agency that processes key federal benefits to the poor made explosive testimonies in court—that their bosses instructed them to doctor emergency food aid applications to hurt the very people they’re supposed to help. The following month, four more Human Services Department employees added their voices to the allegations. Then, three top state officials were called to the stand and pleaded the Fifth, refusing to answer nearly 100 total questions about their role in the scandal. Previously: Top ten stories of 2016: 10-6; #5: NM Dems buck national trend, retake House; #4: Demesia Padilla resigns; #3: AG clears final behavioral health providers; #2: State budget situation worsens
“In my opinion, we’re cheating those families,” Angela Dominguez, one of the HSD employees, said in her court testimony. The underlying question next became, why?
A federal judge ordered New Mexico Human Services Department Secretary Brent Earnest held in contempt of court for failing to comply with orders in a long-running food aid case. The order from U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Gonzales came down on Tuesday afternoon. The contempt order came in civil court. “It’s extremely rare for department officials to be held in contempt by federal court,” Sovereign Hager of the Center on Law and Poverty explained. “It’s a very bad and serious thing, especially for low income people who need these programs to live.
A federal judge has ordered an independent “special master” to oversee the division within a state department that deals with food and medical assistance for the poor. On Tuesday, federal judge Kenneth Gonzales formally accepted a July proposal from federal magistrate judge Carmen Garza to appoint a special master. The special master will oversee the processing of Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits at the embattled state Human Services Department. Gonzales also gave the special master the power to hire consultants who “will have the same access the staff, records, persons, facilities or sites of services that … the special master determines is necessary.”
This special master will be tasked with bringing HSD’s benefits processing practices into compliance with federal law. Only the federal court will have decisionmaking power over the special master, who is yet to be determined.
After receiving federal food aid benefits for nearly a year to help feed themselves and their now four-month-old infant, Amphai Kelley and Somkid Krotha benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, recently expired. That’s not necessarily their problem. New Mexico’s Human Services Department also wants the couple to pay back more than $2,000 in food aid awarded to the couple since last fall. The state now says they shouldn’t have received the food aid in the first place. Kelley and Krotha question whether they can afford a repayment.
Not all people who apply for food aid in New Mexico qualify, but that hasn’t always stopped the state Human Services Department from sometimes giving them benefits. The state then sometimes attempted to get the recipients to repay the benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. Oftentimes, collections came weeks or even months after the state disbursed the food aid. But last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which manages SNAP, told the state not so fast on those collection plans. Now, after a back-and-forth with the federal government, the state will stop trying to collect these types of SNAP overpayments.
An attorney for the state Human Services Department told state lawmakers Friday he wasn’t sure how long an internal investigation of alleged systemic fraud within his agency would take to complete. But he offered his best guess. “My understanding is that the inspector general plans to have more by this fall,” HSD General Counsel Christopher Collins told lawmakers in response to a question from state Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque. Collins made the comments in an interim Legislative Health and Human Services Committee hearing where lawmakers examined the food stamp scandal that has rocked headlines for the past three months. In May, HSD’s inspector general announced an investigation into allegations that department officials falsified emergency food aid applications to deny benefits to qualified applicants.
A federal agency said the state Human Services Department should stop attempting to recoup money from food aid beneficiaries who the state may have given more money than they were supposed to. Last week, an administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Services requested, in a letter, that the state department “immediately cease” collecting overpayments from New Mexicans who received extra benefits through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. The letter, written by USDA FNS Southwest Administrator William Ludwig to HSD Secretary Brent Earnest, comes two months after the same federal agency threatened to pull money from the department after finding eight violations of federal law in its processing of food aid and Medicaid. Ludwig alludes to those eight violations—which included keeping pending SNAP applications open for more than the allotted 60 days, approving benefits without interviewing or determining a person’s SNAP eligibility and failing to keep accurate records of clients—in his latest letter to Earnest. Ludwig also wrote his agency reviewed some of the state’s processed SNAP cases and found that HSD wouldn’t have sought overpayments from beneficiaries if it had followed proper procedures.
After testimony from officials from three nonprofits that provided behavioral health services which were targeted with fraud allegations but later cleared by the Attorney General,a second New Mexico lawmaker called for state Human Services Department Secretary Brent Earnest to resign. “This is just morally repugnant behavior that this administration, this department, has done,” state Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, said Wednesday at an interim Legislative Health and Human Services Committee meeting. “It’s criminal and obscene.”
Trujillo and eight other state lawmakers listened to the heads of three of the 15 behavioral health organizations that were infamously accused of “credible allegations of fraud” in 2013 by HSD’s then-Secretary Sidonie Squier. The department cited an audit from Boston-based Public Consulting Group that found $34 million in Medicaid fraud between the 15 providers. Squier cut off Medicaid funding from the providers, but the Attorney General’s Office has since cleared all from any wrongdoing.
A federal judge proposed the appointment of a special master to oversee food and medical assistance programs in the state, the most clear indication of the severity of the problems in the programs’ administration by the state. The judges’ proposal is, in federal Magistrate Judge Carmen Garza’s words, “largely adopted from” the state Human Services Department’s remedy of a special master that will act as a monitor to bring the department into compliance with federal law. This is a breaking news story and has been update. It may be updated further. But the ruling makes clear that the special master will answer to the court and not HSD or the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which include the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.
Two things about New Mexico’s scandal over the state allegedly falsifying applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program stand out to Samuel Chu. The first is documentation of the scandal in federal court, which in May included three top state Human Services Department officials refusing to answer a total of nearly 100 questions from lawyers. Instead, they asserted their Fifth Amendment rights, which allow people to avoid possibly incriminating themselves. “We generally don’t see that,” Chu, the national synagogue organizer with Mazon, a California-based anti-hunger organization that tracks food stamp issues across the country. The Fifth Amendment pleadings came after multiple HSD employees told the court of an alleged statewide practice of adding false resources to applications for emergency benefits through SNAP, the federal program formerly known as food stamps.