July 6, 2016

After deadline, HSD report on alleged SNAP fraud still not finished

darius norvilas

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

LAS CRUCES — After being under court order to hand in an investigation of allegedly fraudulent food aid practices last week, the investigator of a state agency testified in federal court Wednesday he was “not there yet” in completing his report.

But Gallegos also acknowledged to Center on Law and Poverty attorney Sovereign Hager that potential wrongdoing “may be more egregious” than anyone perceived.

While the state Human Services Department submitted the internal report to court last week, the department’s inspector general, Adrian Gallegos, told the federal court that he still hadn’t interviewed at least ten upper-level staffers. Employees at HSD testified in court and told Gallegos that these 10 staffers played a key role in the sanctioning of regularly adding fake assets to applications for emergency Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.

Related: Cabinet secretary testifies on alleged fraud allegations in his department

These emergency benefits are designed for those with extremely low incomes. Federal law states the emergency benefits must be awarded within seven days.

HSD Secretary Brent Earnest testified that he didn’t learn of the fraud allegations until April 28, when they first were made public in federal court in Albuquerque.

Officials Gallegos didn’t interview as part of HSD’s internal investigation of the allegations include Marilyn Martinez, Laura Galindo and Emily Floyd—all of whom hold high positions in HSD. Each also testified in federal court in May and asserted their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, refusing to answer any questions about their role in the alleged fraud.

When asked if he knew that employees implicated Martinez, Galindo and Floyd in the alleged SNAP fraud, Gallegos acknowledged he was “aware in some interviews that statements have been made.” The employees made the allegations in two separate federal court hearings in April and May.

At one point, Federal Magistrate Judge Carmen Garza asked Gallegos what he thought of the three HSD staffers invoking their Fifth Amendment rights.

“It’s significant to me,” he replied.

He added that he wants to give them an opportunity to talk to him.

“There may be things that they want to tell me,” Gallegos said.

Gallegos testified that he prefers to have all evidence available so “it becomes overwhelming for the individual to deny what they’ve done.”

“Typically, we gather as much information as possible before confronting someone,” he told the court.

Still, the federal judge gave HSD two-months to conduct and submit the investigation, which was due to federal court at the end of June. Wednesday, Garza ordered the state to unseal the internal investigation by the end of the week.

During testimony, attorneys for the Center on Law and Poverty zeroed in on other perceived holes in Gallegos’ investigation, including allegations that the fraudulent asset practice came from the very top of the agency. Hager said workers made those allegations in audio recordings of Gallegos’ interviews, but that Gallegos didn’t include them as findings in his report.

The Center had access to the incomplete report.

“Do you think it matters?” Hager asked Gallegos about allegations of the practice coming from the top.

“I’d have to go back and analyze the audio, but potentially,” he replied.

The allegations of fraudulent SNAP application processing came as part of an ongoing lawsuit accusing HSD of mishandling federal benefits application processing.

The Center, along with independent attorney Daniel Yohalem, want the federal court to appoint an independent monitor to direct Medicaid and SNAP case processing. The attorney for HSD argued instead for a “special master” who would oversee the changes, but not have complete authority over the food benefits program in the state.

Both sides gave closing arguments for this motion on Wednesday.

During closing arguments, Garza asked HSD attorney Christopher Collins whether the fraud allegations along with three higher-up staffers invoking their Fifth Amendment rights to avoid incrimination were enough for her to judge the department as acting in bad faith.

Collins responded that the court could infer how it pleases, but that HSD takes the allegations very seriously and continue investigating them.

“The report of the inspector general at this point is inconclusive,” Collins said.