Multiple state employees alleged that the Human Services Department instructed them to falsify numbers on federal food stamp applications in explosive testimonies in federal court in Albuquerque Thursday afternoon.
One was Jeannette Roybal, who processes Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, applications in Las Cruces. She testified that her supervisor told her in January to inflate the assets of a SNAP applicant so the application would be considered non-expeditable.
According to federal law, those who qualify for expedited SNAP benefits based on extremely low income levels must receive their benefits within seven days of applying. These are also known as emergency SNAP benefits. But many of these cases that appeared to qualify weren’t resolved by HSD within that amount of time, leading to overdue cases, according to multiple testimonies.
“There were no resources in the case to add,” Roybal said before court. “It’s not the proper way.”
Sandra Saiz, a line manager for Income Support Division in Portales, testified that higher-ups encouraged her workplace to add fake assets to SNAP applications so the department could cut down its growing list of overdue expedited SNAP cases.
“The directive was to do whatever you had to make it non-expedite,” Saiz said in her testimony.
Usually, that meant trying to “find something you missed somewhere” in the application for benefits, according to Saiz. But when asked by a state lawyer she ever made up a number to add to an application, she replied: “I very seldom do it, I don’t like to do it, but yes, I have done it.”
The testimony came during a hearing for a legal motion asking for HSD to be held in contempt of court for not complying with provisions in a 25-year-old consent decree. The consent decree was the result of a lawsuit that alleged the department didn’t process food stamp and Medicaid applications properly.
The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty is asking federal court to appoint an independent monitor to oversee several HSD functions, including ISD.
The directive for the Portales ISD office came from the office’s regional office manager in April 2015, according to case processor Angela Dominguez.
“He came and said they had been selected for federal review,” Dominguez said during testimony. “He was concerned how we were going to justify [the overdue expedited cases]. He said, ‘You can go in there and check and add assets.’”
Adding assets, Dominguez said, would expand the time period HSD had to process these cases. But that means people who qualify for expedited SNAP benefits won’t receive them.
“In my opinion we’re cheating those families,” Dominguez said in her testimony.
HSD management went as far as to change a processor’s case notes to show that they reflected adding assets to an application, according to Margaret Vasquez-Padilla, who works at ISD in Taos. Vasquez-Padilla testified that she processed an overdue expedited SNAP case that her superiors later added $400 in assets to.
“How did they reflect $400 in assets?” Sovereign Hager, an attorney for Center on Law and Poverty, asked during the hearing.
“They just put them there,” Vasquez-Padilla replied.
Vasquez-Padilla said she knew her superiors changed her case notes on the application. She said she kept her old case notes “because this has happened before.”
Another ISD employee, Frederick Garcia, testified that he knew employees would add fake assets to SNAP applications.
“I’ll see it quoted as ‘cash on hand,” Garcia, who works in Las Cruces, said.
During testimony, HSD Secretary Brent Earnest argued that resorting to an independent monitor, known as a receivership, “seems like a recipe for chaos.” Earnest said such measures would cost money that could otherwise go to the poor.
Addressing the lawsuit as a whole, Earnest acknowledged that he “makes mistakes” and that “everyone in the department is going to make mistakes” but that HSD “has a way to address them.”
Shanita Harrison, a deputy director for ISD, addressed the employees’ allegations by accusing four of those who testified about the fake assets of making errors on their cases.
During her own testimony, Harrison accused Garcia of marking a SNAP case as expedited that didn’t qualify because the family involved “received benefits in Alabama during the month of their application.”
Harrison also accused Dominguez of processing a case that was not expedited because the family had $2,200 in income.
She alleged Vasquez-Padilla made an error by processing a renewal application as a new application. Finally, Harrison accused Roybal of not properly updating the data on one of her cases.
All five employees who testified said they feared retaliation for coming forward.
Closing arguments for the legal motion will likely happen next week, after which the federal judge will decide on whether to appoint an independent monitor to oversee these parts of HSD.