November 15, 2016

Union questions tactics in ‘ramped-up’ food benefits investigation

Photo Credit: Paul Sableman cc

The state and federal government have “ramped up their investigations” of the New Mexico’s alleged widespread falsification of food aid applications, according to the union that represents the state’s case processors in the Human Services Department.

And the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, Council 18 question whether investigators are targeting “frontline workers” more than the administrators at HSD for responsibility in the scandal.

An online post from AFSCME also claims that the investigation is criminal and advises all union members to “contact your union representative before participating in any interview.”

“We understand the importance of getting to the bottom of this swamp,” the AFSCME post reads. “It will be unacceptable should frontline workers be scapegoated of held responsible for wrong-doing [sic] that federal court proceedings revealed was directed from top levels of state government.”

Reached by phone, representatives from AFSCME declined to comment on the matter further. A spokesman from HSD also didn’t return requests to comment Tuesday afternoon.

HSD typically does not respond to requests for comment from NM Political Report on the food benefits falsification scandal or any other story.

Controversy over fraudulent addition of funds to applications became public last summer when nine HSD employees testified to firsthand knowledge about the practice. The employees accused the state of instructing employees to falsify emergency applications for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, to fix the state’s backlog problems with these case.

In return, the nine employees testified, poor people who otherwise qualified were either received their benefits after they should have, according to federal law, or never received the benefits at all.

Federal law requires states to process these emergency SNAP applications within seven days of receiving them. States that don’t do so in the seven days can be punished through sanctions.

Three HSD officials—Laura Galindo, Marilyn Martinez and Emily Floyd—refused to answer questions under oath about the controversy over the summer. Instead, they invoked their Fifth Amendment rights, which the US Constitution allows people to do to avoid incriminating themselves from possible criminal activity.

Both HSD and the United States Department of Agriculture, which administers the program, soon opened an investigation into the allegations, which remains ongoing.

AFSCME also posted online a letter the union says the state recently sent to employees about the investigation.

The letter points to employees’ right to not participate in an investigatory interviews but also warns that doing so could be used against them in the future.

“If you refuse to answer the questions posed to you on the ground that the answers may tend to incriminate you, you cannot be dismissed solely for remaining silent,” the letter reads. “However, your silence can be construed in an administrative proceeding for its evidentiary value that is warranted by the facts surrounding the case.”

According to AFSCME, HSD requires employees review this letter before interviewing them as part of the investigation.

“It is imperative that you request union representation prior to going into the interview,” the AFSCME post reads.

It’s unclear how much longer the investigation will take.

Meanwhile, the state and an advocacy group have not agreed on who should serve as an independent monitor to spend the next year helping to fix problems with food benefits administration and bring HSD into compliance with federal law.

Earlier this year, a federal judge ordered the appointment of such a monitor to help solve a decades-long lawsuit that accused the state agency of wrongly processing SNAP and Medicaid benefits.

Both HSD and the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty have submitted names for the monitor to the judge. Sovereign Hager, an attorney for the Center on Law and Poverty, told NM Political Report Tuesday that the judge has had the two names for more than a month and could decide on the monitor any day.

She declined to disclose the names submitted, citing an order from the judge.