A federal judge has ordered an independent “special master” to oversee the division within a state department that deals with food and medical assistance for the poor. On Tuesday, federal judge Kenneth Gonzales formally accepted a July proposal from federal magistrate judge Carmen Garza to appoint a special master. The special master will oversee the processing of Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits at the embattled state Human Services Department. Gonzales also gave the special master the power to hire consultants who “will have the same access the staff, records, persons, facilities or sites of services that … the special master determines is necessary.”
This special master will be tasked with bringing HSD’s benefits processing practices into compliance with federal law. Only the federal court will have decisionmaking power over the special master, who is yet to be determined.
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.
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.
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 — The cabinet secretary of the state Human Services Department testified Wednesday that he didn’t know of allegations of widespread fraud in the processing of food benefits applications within his department until they first became public in April. Nine employees previously testified in federal court in April and May about HSD’s practice of adding fake assets to emergency applications for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. “I would never tolerate that or direct that,” Earnest said. Related: After deadline, HSD report on alleged SNAP fraud still not finished
Earnest and his attorneys emphasized that HSD took immediate action end to put an end to the practice by sending a directive to employees reminding them to follow federal law and initiating an internal investigation of the matter. The remarks are Earnest’s first public comments about when he first found out about the alleged practices that have rocked his department for the past two months.
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.