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?
Media coverage of planned tax legislation has so far focused on one hot-button topic of the proposal—reinstating a state tax on food. Santa Fe Archbishop John C. Wester and advocacy groups like New Mexico Voices for Children have vocally opposed the idea. But the two state representatives behind the proposal have not actually filed any legislation on the matter for the session that begins in January. Legislators could begin introducing bills on Dec. 15.
The state wants to extend a waiver that allows the state to waive work requirements for federal food benefits. The Santa Fe New Mexican reported the news of the proposed waiver coming from the embattled state Human Services Department. The department previously sought to reimplement the work rules for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, but a federal judge blocked the request. Earlier this year, a federal judge slammed HSD for doing the work of creating new rules and procedures for the work requirements while not working toward compliance with a decades-old consent order. Last week, a federal judge named a Texas administrator as a “special master” to oversee the department’s food benefits functions.
The state and federal government have “ramped up their investigations” of the New Mexico’s alleged widespread falsification of food aid applications, according to the union that represents the state’s case processors in the Human Services Department. And the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, Council 18 question whether investigators are targeting “frontline workers” more than the administrators at HSD for responsibility in the scandal. An online post from AFSCME also claims that the investigation is criminal and advises all union members to “contact your union representative before participating in any interview.”
“We understand the importance of getting to the bottom of this swamp,” the AFSCME post reads. “It will be unacceptable should frontline workers be scapegoated of held responsible for wrong-doing [sic] that federal court proceedings revealed was directed from top levels of state government.”
Reached by phone, representatives from AFSCME declined to comment on the matter further. A spokesman from HSD also didn’t return requests to comment Tuesday afternoon.
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.