Attorneys for the Center on Law and Poverty are asking a federal court to unseal an internal state investigation into allegations of fraud in processing and falsely denying food benefits applications.
In a motion filed today, the Center’s attorneys argued that the public’s “significant interest” in the matter outweighs the state’s arguments to keep the report on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program applications secret.
“The Court’s actions in this case are of great public concern, as New Mexico has one of the highests rates of hunger in the United States,” the Center’s attorneys wrote. “The public this has an especially strong interest in having access to documents the Court uses to inform its decision affecting the class of food assistance applicants.”
The state Human Services Department was rocked in recent months after employees said they were instructed to add fake assets to emergency applications for SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, so applicants wouldn’t be eligible for the emergency benefits.
Applicants seeking emergency SNAP benefits must face extreme levels of poverty to qualify. Federal law says they must also receive emergency benefits within seven days of applying, though HSD allegedly added fake resources to many of these applications in an attempt to clear large backlogs of such applications that were not answered after seven days.
The allegations came in April and May from nine employee testimonies before federal court in a lawsuit from the Center accusing HSD of mishandling SNAP and Medicaid application processing.
HSD launched an internal investigation into the matter last month and submitted the complete results to the court earlier this week. But the state department also asked the court to keep the investigation out of the public view, which the court granted until an unnamed “later time.”
The United States Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Inspector General also recently launched an investigation into the allegations, as did State Auditor Tim Keller.
HSD’s report, according to the Center’s legal filing, “only provides ‘a preliminary status’ of an investigation” consisting of summaries of 17 interviews with “lower level employees,” three of whom testified before court as part of the lawsuit.
“The report makes no conclusions and no individual or entity is identified as potentially criminally liable,” the Center’s motion reads. “Any names and case number information can be redacted to protect the identity of Defendant’s employees and food assistance participants.”
NM Political Report left a voicemail and email Friday afternoon with HSD spokesman Kyler Nerison seeking comment and has not heard back. To date, Nerison has not responded to any of several NM Political Report inquiries on this and other subjects concerning HSD.
The Center previously asked the court to appoint an independent monitor to direct and oversee HSD’s SNAP and Medicaid processing. Closing arguments for that motion are scheduled for next week in Las Cruces.
Read the legal motion below:
Doc 721_Motion_to Unseal Record of Investigation_2016!07!01 by New Mexico Political Report