June 23, 2016

Delegation, USDA want federal investigation into NM’s SNAP program

Photo Credit: Paul Sableman cc

The New Mexico congressional delegation and a high-ranking USDA official want a federal investigation into the state’s handling of food benefit applications.

The calls for an investigation from all five members of the delegation and the USDA Undersecretary of Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services comes after a federal court case included allegations of the department changing applications and adding assets so the applicant no longer qualified for emergency food aid benefits.

Related: USDA investigating HSD’s alleged food benefits violations

Undersecretary Kevin Concannon cited these allegations against the state Human Services Department, which he referred to as the Department of Human Services, in his letter to the USDA Inspector General and Assistant Inspector General for Investigations.

“We have become aware of significant irregularities found in NMDHS’s certification process, and are aware of allegations which, if demonstrated to be true, could represent fraudulent criminal activity on the part of State agency staff,” Concannon wrote. “Specifically, there are allegations of State employees falsifying certification records by adding assets to submitted [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] applications so that applicants don’t qualify for expedited service application processing to which they are entitled.”

The letter signed by all five members of the congressional delegation also mentioned the allegations and asked for an investigation. Signatures to the letter include Rep. Steve Pearce, the delegation’s lone Republican.

That letter was sent to Phyllis K. Fong, the USDA Inspector General.

“We have had concerns regarding New Mexico’s administration of the SNAP program for a number of years and any actions by HSD that have resulted in eligible families and children going hungry need to be identified and rectified immediately, and those responsible need to be held accountable,” they wrote.

NM Political Report sent an email to HSD spokesman Kyler Nerison. Nerison has typically avoided commenting about the SNAP allegations to NM Political Report. If Nerison decides to respond to requests for comment, we will add his comments here.

Sovereign Hager, the Supervising Attorney for Public Benefits at the Center for Law and Poverty, responded to the letters.

CLP brought the case against HSD on the benefits.

“We want a thorough and independent investigation to take place that uncovers the root cause and extent of this practice,” Hager said in a statement. “This way we can move forward with systemic changes that ensure workers have the resources and training necessary to provide emergency food assistance on time to families in need.”

Allegations from employees

Multiple employees at HSD alleged in two federal court hearings that higher-ups in the department told them to add fake assets to applications so they would no longer qualify for emergency benefits. Those who qualify for emergency benefits from the federal program formerly known as food stamps must receive those benefits within seven days, according to federal law.

One employee said the instructions to add assets came “from Santa Fe,” a reference to top state government bureaucrats.

The testimony came as part of a long-running lawsuit that dates back decades over New Mexico’s inability to successfully process benefits.

A 2013 IT upgrade was supposed to help fix this, but instead advocates say it made things worse. In addition to the changes to the computer system, ASPEN, problems were attributed to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, known by some as Obamacare.

In response to allegations, HSD managers and officials asserted their Fifth Amendment rights and did not answer questions nearly 100 times in a hearing in Las Cruces.

Previously, the federal government placed HSD on a “detailed corrective action plan” that mandated fixes to the numerous problems with SNAP benefits applications. The department outlined its plans to fix the problems.

The department also issued a memo instructing workers to follow federal guidelines on SNAP benefits.

In a congressional hearing, Concannon referred to New Mexico’s SNAP system as “the most fouled up” in the nation.

UPDATE (4:50 p.m.): Added statement from Sovereign Hager.

  USDA under secretary request for OIG investigation by New Mexico Political Report

  Delegation Letter to OIG on NM SNAP by New Mexico Political Report