Not all people who apply for food aid in New Mexico qualify, but that hasn’t always stopped the state Human Services Department from sometimes giving them benefits. The state then sometimes attempted to get the recipients to repay the benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. Oftentimes, collections came weeks or even months after the state disbursed the food aid. But last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which manages SNAP, told the state not so fast on those collection plans. Now, after a back-and-forth with the federal government, the state will stop trying to collect these types of SNAP overpayments.
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 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.
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.
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.
After damning food stamp fraud allegations surfaced in federal court in April, the state brought on a high-profile Albuquerque law firm. A later court hearing earlier this month marked the first time that Paul Kennedy, a former State Supreme Court justice and frequent lawyer for Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration, made a formal entrance in the decades-old Deborah Hatten-Gonzales v. Human Services Department lawsuit. Kennedy made a formal entrance into the Hatten-Gonzales case on May 12. Daniel Yohalem* is an attorney representing part of the Center on Law and Poverty’s legal team who has been working on the Hatten-Gonzales case since 1996. The May 13 court hearing was the first time Yohalem said he’d ever seen Kennedy on the case. Originally filed in 1988, the Hatten-Gonzales lawsuit alleged that the state was mishandling its processing of applicants seeking benefits from Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps, and Medicaid.