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.
A state official who pleaded her Fifth Amendment rights 39 times in federal court in May is no longer in charge of the Human Services Department’s Income Support Division, which processes federal food aid benefits. HSD Secretary Brent Earnest announced Friday, ahead of a holiday weekend, that Marilyn Martinez will no longer head the department’s Income Support Division. Starting today, Martinez will act as chief of the department’s financial services bureau in the administrative services division. “Marilyn has been a dedicated member of the HSD team for many years, recently serving as ISD Director,” Earnest wrote in an email to employees last Friday, “and I look forward to her contributing her experience and expertise within ASD.”
Martinez appeared on the stand as a witness in an ongoing lawsuit alleging that HSD is mishandling applications for Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. There, Martinez invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refused to answer 39 questions from an attorney representing the Center on Law and Poverty.
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.
An official who pleaded her Fifth Amendment rights in court over widespread allegations of fraud in how the state administers the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will take charge of a large portion of the state’s corrective action plan to fix many of the program’s problems outlined by the federal government. In May, Marilyn Martinez, the state Human Services Department’s director of the Income Support Division, appeared as a witness in federal court and refused to answer 39 questions from attorneys with the Center on Law and Poverty. Many of these questions centered on Martinez’s role in the alleged institutional practice of adding fake assets to emergency applications to deny benefits to people seeking aid from the program formerly known as food stamps. “Why did you think it was appropriate to be adding assets to case files in order to bar people from being approved for expedited SNAP?” attorney Daniel Yohalem* asked Martinez during her testimony. “I’m invoking my Fifth Amendment right,” Martinez responded.
The federal government placed state Human Services Department on a “detailed corrective action plan,” mandating it correct its many problems with administering the Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP), the food benefits program formerly known as food stamps. In a May 27 letter to HSD Secretary Brent Earnest, U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service Southwest Regional Administrator William Ludwig warned that failure to submit a plan “within 14 days of receipt of this letter” could lead to “further escalation.”
The potential fallout for New Mexico, according to the letter, includes “the possible suspension or disallowance of Federal funding for State administrative expenses.”
“It is imperative that HSD understand the severity and consequences outlined in this letter,” Ludwig wrote. On the surface, Ludwig’s letter faults HSD for giving SNAP benefits to people that it shouldn’t be. He details eight “severe compliance issues” where HSD broke federal regulations in its processing of SNAP applications. They include the department’s practice of keeping pending SNAP applications open for more than the required 60 days, approving applications without interviewing or determining a person’s eligibility for SNAP and failing to keep accurate records of clients.
Just days after a state senator called for the resignation of New Mexico Human Services Department Secretary Brent Earnest, the two kept things relatively cordial with one another in their first public meeting since then. Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, chair of the interim Legislative Health and Human Services, gave the floor to Earnest during the Monday morning committee hearing by the committee to explain how he is addressing allegations in several court testimonies of a department policy to falsify and delay emergency food benefit applications. “I don’t believe that anything has been said about what you’re doing about that,” Ortiz y Pino told Earnest. Last week, Ortiz y Pino made a statement calling the alleged practice “completely unacceptable.”
“If Secretary Earnest did not know this was happening, he failed to lead the agency,” his statement said. “If he did know, but did nothing, then this is may be a very serious legal matter.”
During the hearing Monday, Earnest explained that since the allegations first surfaced in April, his department launched an internal investigation and issued a written directive to employees telling them to follow federal guidelines.