July 8, 2016

After alleging fraud, employees say state retaliated against them

Photo Credit: Paul Sableman cc

LAS CRUCES —Two employees who testified in federal court about alleged falsification of food aid applications at the state Human Services Department have since claimed that the agency retaliated against them.

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[/perfectpullquote]This is according to testimony from a federal court hearing this week in an ongoing federal lawsuit, where plaintiffs accuse HSD of instructing employees to falsely add assets to some applications for Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

In both cases, however, HSD Secretary told the court that “disciplinary seems appropriate based on performance.”

The department gave Margaret Vasquez-Padilla, a claims processor in Taos, a letter of reprimand on June 6. In April and May, she testified twice in federal court, and accused her superiors of adding fake assets to a SNAP application that she processed.

Vasquez-Padilla also testified that her superiors even went as far as to change her own case notes to reflect faked assets on an applicant. She said she knew this because she saved her original notes because “this has happened before.”

In court this week, HSD Secretary Brent Earnest testified that Vasquez-Padilla reported the letter of reprimand as retaliation for her testimony. But he also said her reprimand appeared justified.

“My understanding is that she has not processed cases within the seven-day timeframe, which is unacceptable,” Earnest told the court, referring to the mandated deadline for processing emergency SNAP applications.

Nine employees, including Vasquez-Padilla, testified that HSD’s practice of adding fake assets was to clear a backlog of emergency SNAP applications that weren’t processed within that seven-day deadline. The department refers to these cases as “late expedites.”

Emergency SNAP benefits are only for those with a very small amount of income.

Another of those employees, Angela Dominguez, testified in April that the practice of adding fake assets amounted to “cheating families.” A case processor in Portales, Dominguez told the court in April that her supervisor encouraged the practice in April after becoming concerned about his office’s backlogs ahead of a field visit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is in charge of SNAP benefits.

“He was concerned how we were going to justify [the overdue expedited cases],” Dominguez told the court in April. “He said, ‘You can go in there and check and add assets.’”

This week, attorney Daniel Yohalem*, who represents plaintiffs in the Hatten-Gonzales case, said in court HSD gave Dominguez a letter of reprimand on Friday, July 1.

Earnest also said this reprimand seemed justified.

“It’s my understanding it’s appropriate for performance,” Earnest told the court this week.

Earnest testified that he didn’t learn of the faked asset SNAP allegations until they first surfaced in court in April. He told the court that he took immediate action the next day to end it, issuing a directive to employees telling them to follow federal law in handling late expedites.

He also ordered an internal investigation of the allegations. Federal magistrate judge Carmen Garza, who is overseeing this case, known as Hatten-Gonzales lawsuit, told HSD to finish and submit to court at the end of June. HSD submitted an incomplete investigation last week, as the department’s Inspector General Adrian Gallegos testified that he hadn’t interviewed any of the 10 managers accused of ordering or participating in the practice.

Earnest also told the court this week that he takes all claims of retaliation by employees who have come forward seriously.

“I reached out to the human resources director and said we would never tolerate retaliation,” Earnest told the court.

But Yohalem argued that the reprimands were evidence of Earnest not having full control over the problems in his department.

“This secretary has allowed this to happen,” Yohalem told the court in often testy exchanges.

Yohalem also pressed Earnest on his promotion of Laura Galindo, who until earlier this year directed the Taos office that Vasquez-Padilla works in. Vasquez-Padilla’s testimonies accused Galindo of taking part in directing the faked asset practices.

In May, Galindo took the stand and pleaded her Fifth Amendment rights, which allow individuals to not answer questions under oath to avoid self incrimination. Many of the questions Galindo wouldn’t answer centered around her role in the faked asset allegations.

Earnest testified this week that Galindo’s promotion, who is now HSD’s deputy secretary of child support, came “well before any of these allegations came forward.” Her promotion came toward the beginning of the year.

Yohalem and attorneys for the Center on Law and Poverty are asking for appointment of an independent monitor to oversee and direct HSD’s benefits processing and bring it into compliance with federal law. Earnest and HSD are arguing for an alternative “special master” who would work to being the department into federal compliance but still ultimately answer to Earnest.

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