June 24, 2016

USDA investigating HSD’s alleged problems with food benefits applications

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is now investigating allegations of fraud in emergency food aid processing at the New Mexico Human Services Department.

According to notes from a June 16 conference call in a federal lawsuit, HSD lawyers told a federal judge that “the USDA has officially opened an investigation of HSD and will be sending an investigator to Santa Fe.”

The court meeting came one day after all of New Mexico’s congressional delegation signed a letter asking for an investigation into allegations of a practice at HSD of adding fake assets to the applications of emergency Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP) benefits.

According to court testimony of nine HSD employees, the department instructed workers to add fake assets to deny applicants emergency benefits, which must be fulfilled within seven days instead of the 30 days of standard SNAP applications. Employees said HSD did this to clear a backlog of late emergency applications for SNAP, the program formerly known as food stamps.

The allegations came in part of an ongoing lawsuit from the Center on Law and Poverty that faults HSD for not following federal law in its processing of SNAP and Medicaid applications. The Center wants the federal court to appoint an independent monitor to direct HSD’s SNAP and Medicaid processing.

State to keep internal investigation of SNAP allegations secret

HSD announced it had launched its own internal investigation of the allegations in May. Results of that investigation are due next week to federal court as part of the lawsuit, but the public won’t get to see them for at least an undetermined period of time.

According to the notes from the June 16 conference call, HSD attorneys asked the judge to keep the results of their investigation “under seal.” The judge granted the motion, and the notes say a redacted version of the investigation will be made public “at a later time.”

The court notes report that lawyers with the Center on Law and Poverty did not object to the request, though one of their attorneys, Sovereign Hager, said that’s not accurate.

“We didn’t agree that the report should be under seal,” Hager wrote in an email to NM Political Report. “HSD requested it, the Court agreed. We opposed and asked for a redacted version. The Court said they will revisit that request later.”

She also noted that another attorney for the Center on Law and Poverty present at that conference call, Daniel Yohalem*, sits on the board of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.

“Dan made it clear that he was on the board of FOG and [that] we want this report to be public,” Hager wrote.

That internal report will be discussed during the June 6 and June 7 court hearing where the Center for Law on Poverty will make closing arguments on its request for an independent monitor.

*Daniel Yohalem is representing the Santa Fe Reporter newspaper in a public records lawsuit against Gov. Susana Martinez. That lawsuit originated in 2013, while Joey Peters worked as a reporter for the newspaper.