Media coverage of planned tax legislation has so far focused on one hot-button topic of the proposal—reinstating a state tax on food. Santa Fe Archbishop John C. Wester and advocacy groups like New Mexico Voices for Children have vocally opposed the idea. But the two state representatives behind the proposal have not actually filed any legislation on the matter for the session that begins in January. Legislators could begin introducing bills on Dec. 15.
A federal judge appointed a Texas government official to serve as the “special master” to help a New Mexico state agency come into compliance with federal law. Lawrence M. Parker, who has worked for the Texas Health and Human Services Department, will be responsible for essentially fixing the New Mexico Human Service Department’s food aid and Medicaid case processing. The appointment comes as part of a decades-old lawsuit that alleged HSD wasn’t properly processing federal aid to New Mexicans. While that lawsuit, known as Hatten-Gonzales, resulted in a consent decree in 1990, an Albuquerque-based nonprofit argued in court this year that the state wasn’t properly following guidelines laid out under the consent decree. The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty also argued for the federal court to appoint an independent monitor to oversee the state department’s Income Support Division, which processes Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
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.
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.
After receiving federal food aid benefits for nearly a year to help feed themselves and their now four-month-old infant, Amphai Kelley and Somkid Krotha benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, recently expired. That’s not necessarily their problem. New Mexico’s Human Services Department also wants the couple to pay back more than $2,000 in food aid awarded to the couple since last fall. The state now says they shouldn’t have received the food aid in the first place. Kelley and Krotha question whether they can afford a repayment.
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.
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.