May 31, 2016

State brought in the big guns for latest SNAP hearing

darius norvilas

U.S. Federal Courthouse in Las Cruces. Flickr cc

After damning food stamp fraud allegations surfaced in federal court in April, the state brought on a high-profile Albuquerque law firm.

U.S. Federal Courthouse in Las Cruces. Photo Credit: darius norvilas cc

darius norvilas

U.S. Federal Courthouse in Las Cruces. Photo Credit: darius norvilas cc

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. But the Center on Law and Poverty says the state hasn’t been following a 1991 consent decree that was the result of the Hatten-Gonzales settlement with the state.

In other words, New Mexico is still mishandling SNAP and Medicaid applications, according to the advocacy organization.

As evidence, the Center brought nine state employees to testify in court in April and May about being instructed to falsify emergency SNAP applications to deny benefits to applicants.

The state responded by bringing on Kennedy.

On May 16, that HSD awarded Kennedy’s law firm a $30,000 sole-source contract on May 16, which runs through the end of June. Apart from helping HSD’s legal defense, the contract also includes the law firm’s assistance in any “internal investigations or external investigations that may be conducted by state and/or federal regulatory or investigatory agencies” resulting from the SNAP fraud allegations.

Both HSD and State Auditor Tim Keller have announced their own investigations into the allegations. The Santa Fe New Mexican first reported the contract with Kennedy’s law firm.

Aside from this, Kennedy’s law firm has contracted nearly $385,000 with the Martinez administration in the past three years, according to the state Sunshine Portal. Kennedy also represented Jay McCleskey, Martinez’s top political operative, when he was recently under federal investigation.

Kennedy didn’t respond to a question after the hearing two weeks ago, stating he wasn’t “authorized to comment” on the lawsuit. NM Political Report hasn’t been able to get a hold of him since.

Center on Law and Poverty attorney Sovereign Hager questioned whether Kennedy’s demeanor in court—he questioned the morals of one worker for not bringing the allegations to light sooner and insinuated that another worker came forward only to cover herself—means the state is treating its internal investigation of the incident seriously.

“If they didn’t know [about the faked assets], why are they actively seeking to discredit the workers who have come forward?” Hager said in an interview.

Another politically connected lawyer, former Republican state Rep. Justine Fox-Young, represented former ISD Deputy Director Laura Galindo when she pleaded the fifth 58 times in court this month.

The Center is asking a federal judge to appoint an independent monitor to oversee the state’s SNAP and Medicaid processing.

Closing arguments on that motion are scheduled for June 6 and 7.

*Daniel Yohalem previously represented Joey Peters when he was a staff writer at the Santa Fe Reporter as part of a public records lawsuit against the governor’s office. 

Read the HSD contract to Kennedy & Associates below:

05.13.2016 Kennedy Contract by New Mexico Political Report