July 29, 2016

Timeline on fraud investigation hazy, HSD says

darius norvilas

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

An attorney for the state Human Services Department told state lawmakers Friday he wasn’t sure how long an internal investigation of alleged systemic fraud within his agency would take to complete.

But he offered his best guess.

“My understanding is that the inspector general plans to have more by this fall,” HSD General Counsel Christopher Collins told lawmakers in response to a question from state Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque.

Collins made the comments in an interim Legislative Health and Human Services Committee hearing where lawmakers examined the food stamp scandal that has rocked headlines for the past three months.

In May, HSD’s inspector general announced an investigation into allegations that department officials falsified emergency food aid applications to deny benefits to qualified applicants.

Collins also said the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Inspector General is helping HSD and is not conducting its own investigation of the matter.

“The USDA inspector general is working with the state office of the inspector general with this investigation,” Collins said, adding that the federal department “accepted the methodology” used in the state investigation.

Paul Feeney, deputy counsel with the USDA Office of the Inspector General, would not confirm the extent of the federal agency’s role in the investigation.

“We decline comments on our office of investigation activities,” Feeney told NM Political Report earlier this week.

New Mexico’s entire federal congressional delegation last month asked USDA to “thoroughly” investigate the SNAP fraud allegations.

Friday’s update came after HSD submitted an incomplete investigation of the fraud allegations to federal court last month as part of a long-running lawsuit accusing the state department of mishandling its benefits processing for Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

In May, federal magistrate judge Carmen Garza ordered the state to submit the investigation within 60 days.

Though incomplete, attorney Sovereign Hager of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which represents plaintiffs in the ongoing lawsuit, told lawmakers HSD’s internal report shows that the directive to falsify applications came from supervisors within the department, some of whom have been recently promoted.

But Hager added there’s “no indication” HSD Secretary Brent Earnest was aware of the alleged fraudulent practice.

That’s a point that Collins emphasized during the Friday meeting.

“The secretary did not know about this until we learned it in court,” Collins said, referring to the first testimonies of the alleged practice from HSD employees in April. “The investigation shows this has gone back 23 years. We want to be clear there has never been a directive from the secretary.”

Several lawmakers, however, criticized leadership at HSD for the scandal.

State Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, asked Collins how many HSD administrators were being investigated for fraudulently adding fake assets to SNAP applications.

Collins responded that he didn’t know, but added that the investigation was looking at all offices within the department.

U.S. Federal Courthouse in Las Cruces. Photo Credit: darius norvilas cc

darius norvilas

U.S. Federal Courthouse in Las Cruces. Photo Credit: darius norvilas cc

During court hearings in April and May, HSD employees accused at least ten supervisors of the practice of adding false assets. Three supervisors who were called as witnesses pleaded their Fifth Amendment rights and refused to answer questions to avoid potentially incriminating themselves in criminal wrongdoing.

“It’s important that these people be criminally prosecuted,” Garcia said, referring to supervisors culpable in the practice.

A spokesman for HSD did not immediately return a voicemail left Friday afternoon by NM Political Report seeking comment for this story.

Earnest did not attend the hearing.

State Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, alluded to the allegations that HSD employees were adding fake assets on late applications to stop the state from being sanctioned from the federal government for having large backlogs. Federal law requires emergency food applications to be processed within seven days, and according to employee testimony the fake assets were added to applications not processed within this timeframe.

“We need to make sure our employees are well-trained, and when the seven days pass, that they can go to their supervisor and not be punished and do what they have to do,” Kernan said.

Kernan added that she appreciated Earnest calling for the investigation after the allegations surfaced. She compared his role to a superintendent of a large public school district.

“They should know what goes on in the classrooms every single day, but they’re not going to,” Kernan said.

Candelaria said it is too early to lay the blame on anybody yet for a scandal that “may be a systematic problem.” But he did question how the issue could have been going on for decades.

“How does a problem like this exist for so long and ostensibly across administrations without secretaries, governors, supervisors, whomever catching wind of it?” Candelaria said. “That’s what confuses me the most, is how does something like this, that now seems so blatant, how does it exist for so long under the radar?”

Two lawmakers—state Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino and state Rep. Christine Trujillo, both Democrats of Albuquerque—have called for Earnest’s resignation. Ortiz y Pino cited the SNAP fraud scandal, while Trujillo referenced the department’s separate behavioral health shakeup scandal.