A federal agency said the state Human Services Department should stop attempting to recoup money from food aid beneficiaries who the state may have given more money than they were supposed to. Last week, an administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Services requested, in a letter, that the state department “immediately cease” collecting overpayments from New Mexicans who received extra benefits through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. The letter, written by USDA FNS Southwest Administrator William Ludwig to HSD Secretary Brent Earnest, comes two months after the same federal agency threatened to pull money from the department after finding eight violations of federal law in its processing of food aid and Medicaid. Ludwig alludes to those eight violations—which included keeping pending SNAP applications open for more than the allotted 60 days, approving benefits without interviewing or determining a person’s SNAP eligibility and failing to keep accurate records of clients—in his latest letter to Earnest. Ludwig also wrote his agency reviewed some of the state’s processed SNAP cases and found that HSD wouldn’t have sought overpayments from beneficiaries if it had followed proper procedures.
A federal judge proposed the appointment of a special master to oversee food and medical assistance programs in the state, the most clear indication of the severity of the problems in the programs’ administration by the state. The judges’ proposal is, in federal Magistrate Judge Carmen Garza’s words, “largely adopted from” the state Human Services Department’s remedy of a special master that will act as a monitor to bring the department into compliance with federal law. This is a breaking news story and has been update. It may be updated further. But the ruling makes clear that the special master will answer to the court and not HSD or the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which include the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.
Two things about New Mexico’s scandal over the state allegedly falsifying applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program stand out to Samuel Chu. The first is documentation of the scandal in federal court, which in May included three top state Human Services Department officials refusing to answer a total of nearly 100 questions from lawyers. Instead, they asserted their Fifth Amendment rights, which allow people to avoid possibly incriminating themselves. “We generally don’t see that,” Chu, the national synagogue organizer with Mazon, a California-based anti-hunger organization that tracks food stamp issues across the country. The Fifth Amendment pleadings came after multiple HSD employees told the court of an alleged statewide practice of adding false resources to applications for emergency benefits through SNAP, the federal program formerly known as food stamps.
The results of a state investigation into allegations of falsified food aid applications at the Human Services Department leave several questions unanswered. But they do acknowledge cases that should have qualified for emergency food aide “showed the potential falsification of assets” that caused benefits to be denied or delayed to people who should have received it. As both HSD officials and attorneys for the Center on Law and Poverty said this week in federal court, HSD’s investigation into the issue that has rocked the agency since April isn’t finished. HSD Inspector General Adrian Gallegos’ written report reflects this. “Until the investigation is complete and all facts are known, a determination of whether the allegations have been substantiated or not cannot be drawn,” he writes.
The state Human Services Department missed a Friday deadline to file an internal report investigating allegations of falsifying food aid applications to deny emergency benefits to the needy with a federal court. Earlier this week, Federal Magistrate Judge Carmen Garza ordered the department’s report unsealed and sent to court by 5pm Friday evening. But HSD attorneys cited technical problems with filing the report on the federal court database where the public can access it online. Related: Incomplete SNAP report finds possible internal falsifications
Instead, HSD attorney Natalie Bruce filed a notice to court Friday evening after 5pm “to let the Court and all interested parties know that I … attempted to timely file the redacted [Office of the Inspector General] report and corresponding exhibits and was unable to accomplish this task.”
While Bruce was unable to file the report online, the attorney noted that she sent all the documents to attorneys for plaintiffs in the Hatten-Gonzales case, who are accusing HSD of improperly processing benefits for Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. She also wrote that the department is sharing the documents “with any interested reporter.”
NM Political Report eventually obtained the internal report at 7:40 pm Friday evening from HSD spokesman Kyler Nerison.
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. [perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]No ads. No clickbait. Just news. [/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.
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.
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.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is now investigating allegations of fraud in emergency food aid processing at the New Mexico Human Services Department. According to notes from a June 16 conference call in a federal lawsuit, HSD lawyers told a federal judge that “the USDA has officially opened an investigation of HSD and will be sending an investigator to Santa Fe.”
The court meeting came one day after all of New Mexico’s congressional delegation signed a letter asking for an investigation into allegations of a practice at HSD of adding fake assets to the applications of emergency Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP) benefits. According to court testimony of nine HSD employees, the department instructed workers to add fake assets to deny applicants emergency benefits, which must be fulfilled within seven days instead of the 30 days of standard SNAP applications. Employees said HSD did this to clear a backlog of late emergency applications for SNAP, the program formerly known as food stamps. The allegations came in part of an ongoing lawsuit from the Center on Law and Poverty that faults HSD for not following federal law in its processing of SNAP and Medicaid applications.
The New Mexico congressional delegation and a high-ranking USDA official want a federal investigation into the state’s handling of food benefit applications. The calls for an investigation from all five members of the delegation and the USDA Undersecretary of Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services comes after a federal court case included allegations of the department changing applications and adding assets so the applicant no longer qualified for emergency food aid benefits. Related: USDA investigating HSD’s alleged food benefits violations
Undersecretary Kevin Concannon cited these allegations against the state Human Services Department, which he referred to as the Department of Human Services, in his letter to the USDA Inspector General and Assistant Inspector General for Investigations. “We have become aware of significant irregularities found in NMDHS’s certification process, and are aware of allegations which, if demonstrated to be true, could represent fraudulent criminal activity on the part of State agency staff,” Concannon wrote. “Specifically, there are allegations of State employees falsifying certification records by adding assets to submitted [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] applications so that applicants don’t qualify for expedited service application processing to which they are entitled.”
The letter signed by all five members of the congressional delegation also mentioned the allegations and asked for an investigation.