A New Mexico district judge ruled Wednesday that Gov. Susana Martinez’s office violated the state’s public records law, but did not break the law when ignoring or refusing interview requests with a Santa Fe newspaper. The Santa Fe Reporter was first to report on the decision from Santa Fe Pro Tem District Judge Sarah Singleton. Singleton ruled that the governor’s office violated the state Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) three times by failing to respond or responding late to public records requests. But, Singleton ruled that the governor and her staff did not violate the U.S. Constitution by refusing to speak to or answer questions from Reporter staffers. She not only said existing case law does not support the paper’s arguments, but that the paper’s questions aimed at the governor’s office “were not comparable to the mundane requests made by other newspaper.”
“The Reporter was requesting special treatment,” Singleton wrote.
Lawyers for the Santa Fe Reporter and Gov. Susana Martinez have submitted written closing arguments in a long-running court battle over public information and records. The Reporter sued Martinez in 2013, alleging she and her staff discriminated against the paper by refusing to communicate with its journalists and violated the state Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) by refusing to turn over records related to pardons, her schedule and other public business. The paper’s attorneys argued that the stonewalling began, ironically enough, after publication of a cover story critical of the administration’s lack of transparency. The unusual case has received wide attention, including from numerous state and local news organizations and from the Columbia Journalism Review. A victory for the newspaper could set new transparency standards for New Mexico state government; a win for the governor would mean some vindication for an elected official who has touted hers as “the most transparent administration in state history.”
A three-day bench trial in the courtroom of state District Judge Sarah Singleton of Santa Fe concluded in April, setting the stage for both sides’ lawyers to sum up their cases in writing.
LAS CRUCES —Two employees who testified in federal court about alleged falsification of food aid applications at the state Human Services Department have since claimed that the agency retaliated against them. [perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]No ads. No clickbait. Just news. [/perfectpullquote]This is according to testimony from a federal court hearing this week in an ongoing federal lawsuit, where plaintiffs accuse HSD of instructing employees to falsely add assets to some applications for Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
LAS CRUCES — The cabinet secretary of the state Human Services Department testified Wednesday that he didn’t know of allegations of widespread fraud in the processing of food benefits applications within his department until they first became public in April. Nine employees previously testified in federal court in April and May about HSD’s practice of adding fake assets to emergency applications for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. “I would never tolerate that or direct that,” Earnest said. Related: After deadline, HSD report on alleged SNAP fraud still not finished
Earnest and his attorneys emphasized that HSD took immediate action end to put an end to the practice by sending a directive to employees reminding them to follow federal law and initiating an internal investigation of the matter. The remarks are Earnest’s first public comments about when he first found out about the alleged practices that have rocked his department for the past two months.
LAS CRUCES — After being under court order to hand in an investigation of allegedly fraudulent food aid practices last week, the investigator of a state agency testified in federal court Wednesday he was “not there yet” in completing his report. But Gallegos also acknowledged to Center on Law and Poverty attorney Sovereign Hager that potential wrongdoing “may be more egregious” than anyone perceived. While the state Human Services Department submitted the internal report to court last week, the department’s inspector general, Adrian Gallegos, told the federal court that he still hadn’t interviewed at least ten upper-level staffers. Employees at HSD testified in court and told Gallegos that these 10 staffers played a key role in the sanctioning of regularly adding fake assets to applications for emergency Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. Related: Cabinet secretary testifies on alleged fraud allegations in his department
These emergency benefits are designed for those with extremely low incomes.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is now investigating allegations of fraud in emergency food aid processing at the New Mexico Human Services Department. According to notes from a June 16 conference call in a federal lawsuit, HSD lawyers told a federal judge that “the USDA has officially opened an investigation of HSD and will be sending an investigator to Santa Fe.”
The court meeting came one day after all of New Mexico’s congressional delegation signed a letter asking for an investigation into allegations of a practice at HSD of adding fake assets to the applications of emergency Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP) benefits. According to court testimony of nine HSD employees, the department instructed workers to add fake assets to deny applicants emergency benefits, which must be fulfilled within seven days instead of the 30 days of standard SNAP applications. Employees said HSD did this to clear a backlog of late emergency applications for SNAP, the program formerly known as food stamps. The allegations came in part of an ongoing lawsuit from the Center on Law and Poverty that faults HSD for not following federal law in its processing of SNAP and Medicaid applications.
After damning food stamp fraud allegations surfaced in federal court in April, the state brought on a high-profile Albuquerque law firm. A later court hearing earlier this month marked the first time that Paul Kennedy, a former State Supreme Court justice and frequent lawyer for Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration, made a formal entrance in the decades-old Deborah Hatten-Gonzales v. Human Services Department lawsuit. Kennedy made a formal entrance into the Hatten-Gonzales case on May 12. Daniel Yohalem* is an attorney representing part of the Center on Law and Poverty’s legal team who has been working on the Hatten-Gonzales case since 1996. The May 13 court hearing was the first time Yohalem said he’d ever seen Kennedy on the case. Originally filed in 1988, the Hatten-Gonzales lawsuit alleged that the state was mishandling its processing of applicants seeking benefits from Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps, and Medicaid.