More than one year after three top state officials refused to answer questions in federal court about fraud allegations and nine months after a federal judge held their cabinet secretary in contempt of court, the state Human Services Department (HSD) appears to still be seriously mishandling how it processes federal benefits to New Mexico’s poor. [perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]No ads. No clickbait. Just news. [/perfectpullquote]This includes an apparent department directive instructing caseworkers to limit interviews with those enrolled in and seeking federal benefits and lie to their superiors about it.
Last month, 82-year-old Viola Weir received a letter from the state that rejected her request for Medicaid benefits to pay for nursing home care. The letter from the New Mexico Human Services Department (HSD) said she had not provided the state agency with “the mandatory documents we need to decide if you can get benefits.” As a result, the department denied Viola Weir her Medicaid benefits. The very same letter also said her income levels and assets met the qualifications to receive such care. That’s according to documentation that Tom Kovach, Weir’s son-in-law, sent to NM Political Report from HSD, the state department which processes federal benefits. To Kovach, the letter didn’t make sense.
A state official who pleaded her Fifth Amendment rights 39 times in federal court in May is no longer in charge of the Human Services Department’s Income Support Division, which processes federal food aid benefits. HSD Secretary Brent Earnest announced Friday, ahead of a holiday weekend, that Marilyn Martinez will no longer head the department’s Income Support Division. Starting today, Martinez will act as chief of the department’s financial services bureau in the administrative services division. “Marilyn has been a dedicated member of the HSD team for many years, recently serving as ISD Director,” Earnest wrote in an email to employees last Friday, “and I look forward to her contributing her experience and expertise within ASD.”
Martinez appeared on the stand as a witness in an ongoing lawsuit alleging that HSD is mishandling applications for Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. There, Martinez invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refused to answer 39 questions from an attorney representing the Center on Law and Poverty.
Attorneys for the Center on Law and Poverty are asking a federal court to unseal an internal state investigation into allegations of fraud in processing and falsely denying food benefits applications. In a motion filed today, the Center’s attorneys argued that the public’s “significant interest” in the matter outweighs the state’s arguments to keep the report on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program applications secret. “The Court’s actions in this case are of great public concern, as New Mexico has one of the highests rates of hunger in the United States,” the Center’s attorneys wrote. “The public this has an especially strong interest in having access to documents the Court uses to inform its decision affecting the class of food assistance applicants.”
The state Human Services Department was rocked in recent months after employees said they were instructed to add fake assets to emergency applications for SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, so applicants wouldn’t be eligible for the emergency benefits. Applicants seeking emergency SNAP benefits must face extreme levels of poverty to qualify.
An official who pleaded her Fifth Amendment rights in court over widespread allegations of fraud in how the state administers the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will take charge of a large portion of the state’s corrective action plan to fix many of the program’s problems outlined by the federal government. In May, Marilyn Martinez, the state Human Services Department’s director of the Income Support Division, appeared as a witness in federal court and refused to answer 39 questions from attorneys with the Center on Law and Poverty. Many of these questions centered on Martinez’s role in the alleged institutional practice of adding fake assets to emergency applications to deny benefits to people seeking aid from the program formerly known as food stamps. “Why did you think it was appropriate to be adding assets to case files in order to bar people from being approved for expedited SNAP?” attorney Daniel Yohalem* asked Martinez during her testimony. “I’m invoking my Fifth Amendment right,” Martinez responded.
The federal government placed state Human Services Department on a “detailed corrective action plan,” mandating it correct its many problems with administering the Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP), the food benefits program formerly known as food stamps. In a May 27 letter to HSD Secretary Brent Earnest, U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service Southwest Regional Administrator William Ludwig warned that failure to submit a plan “within 14 days of receipt of this letter” could lead to “further escalation.”
The potential fallout for New Mexico, according to the letter, includes “the possible suspension or disallowance of Federal funding for State administrative expenses.”
“It is imperative that HSD understand the severity and consequences outlined in this letter,” Ludwig wrote. On the surface, Ludwig’s letter faults HSD for giving SNAP benefits to people that it shouldn’t be. He details eight “severe compliance issues” where HSD broke federal regulations in its processing of SNAP applications. They include the department’s practice of keeping pending SNAP applications open for more than the required 60 days, approving applications without interviewing or determining a person’s eligibility for SNAP and failing to keep accurate records of clients.
This month’s federal court hearing regarding ongoing claims by Human Services Department employees of widespread fraud within the department was notable for another reason besides three high state officials invoking their Fifth Amendment rights nearly 100 times. One former employee testified the department’s practice of adding fake assets to emergency food stamp applications in order to fix the department’s backlog of late applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program came directly from the department’s top brass. Shar Lynne Louis, a former employee at HSD’s Income Support Division (ISD) in Gallup who retired last summer, was one of nine current and former employees who gave testimony in the case over two hearings. Louis said she often reviewed the state’s policies and procedures and could never find anything in them justify adding fake assets. So she asked her superiors.
LAS CRUCES — In a scene of high drama reminiscent of the TV drama “Law and Order,” three prominent state Human Services Department officials invoked their fifth amendment rights nearly 100 times in federal court Friday afternoon. Their refusal to answer questions came directly after sworn testimony from six HSD employees who alleged a widespread practice of fraudulently altering federal food benefits applications. The practice, according to eight former and current HSD employees who testified in federal court last month and today, amounts to adding false assets to the applications of people who would otherwise qualify for emergency aid from their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as food stamps. “I still don’t understand why I had to falsify assets,” Shar Lynne Louis, a case processor at HSD’s Income Support Division (ISD) office in Gallup who retired last July, said in court. Louis testified that the state had been practicing the pattern of fraud since at least 2003, when she first came to the department.