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.
This month’s federal court hearing regarding ongoing claims by Human Services Department employees of widespread fraud within the department was notable for another reason besides three high state officials invoking their Fifth Amendment rights nearly 100 times. One former employee testified the department’s practice of adding fake assets to emergency food stamp applications in order to fix the department’s backlog of late applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program came directly from the department’s top brass. Shar Lynne Louis, a former employee at HSD’s Income Support Division (ISD) in Gallup who retired last summer, was one of nine current and former employees who gave testimony in the case over two hearings. Louis said she often reviewed the state’s policies and procedures and could never find anything in them justify adding fake assets. So she asked her superiors.
At his raucous rally in Albuquerque, presumptive GOP Republican nominee criticized many people, among them Gov. Susana Martinez. Martinez, also the chair of the Republican Governors Association, which raises money and campaigns for GOP candidates across the country, has so far not endorsed Trump for president. She has also criticized Trump’s rhetoric on immigrants. So Trump fired back. First, he pulled out some unflattering Albuquerque and New Mexico statistics.
With seven primary elections left, Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders pledged to a packed Albuquerque Convention Center to continue his push for a political “revolution.”
Sanders said that he is “in this fight until the last battle.”
Sanders currently trails former Secretary of State, U.S. Senator and First Lady Hillary Clinton by 760 delegates. He’s quick to point out that 525 of Clinton’s delegates are super-delegates who pledged support for her on their own and without voter approval, a process he called “kinda dumb” and “undemocratic.”
Related: VIDEO: Bernie Sanders discusses New Mexico issues with NM Political Report. The Washington Post reported earlier this week that Sanders needs to win 67 percent of the remaining pledged delegates to take the lead. In an interview with CNN earlier this week, Clinton called her delegate lead “insurmountable.”
“Just because Hillary Clinton said something doesn’t necessarily make it the case,” Sanders told NM Political Report in a short interview before the rally. “We are now at about 46 percent of the pledged delegates.
LAS CRUCES — In a scene of high drama reminiscent of the TV drama “Law and Order,” three prominent state Human Services Department officials invoked their fifth amendment rights nearly 100 times in federal court Friday afternoon. Their refusal to answer questions came directly after sworn testimony from six HSD employees who alleged a widespread practice of fraudulently altering federal food benefits applications. The practice, according to eight former and current HSD employees who testified in federal court last month and today, amounts to adding false assets to the applications of people who would otherwise qualify for emergency aid from their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as food stamps. “I still don’t understand why I had to falsify assets,” Shar Lynne Louis, a case processor at HSD’s Income Support Division (ISD) office in Gallup who retired last July, said in court. Louis testified that the state had been practicing the pattern of fraud since at least 2003, when she first came to the department.
An advocacy group says data in a legislative report confirms suspicions that a majority of pending Medicaid applications in the last two years were eligible for benefits. For Sovereign Hager, a staff attorney with the Center on Law and Poverty, the fact that the vast majority of those applications were still eligible for benefits is vindication of her organization’s legal battles with the state on the issue. According to figures from the state Human Services Department, which administers the federal Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the department saw 223,000 overdue renewal applications for Medicaid benefits between May 2014 and December 2015. The state agency estimates 97 percent of those applications met Medicaid requirements, despite being overdue. “These overdue cases are the ones HSD would like to close for procedural reasons,” Hager said.
Tens of thousands of New Mexicans are put at risk because of the state’s continued failure to adequately provide health care and food benefits to the poor, according to a legal motion filed by a group seeking to protect low-income residents. Later this month, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty will argue that a federal court should appoint an independent monitor to oversee some of these key tasks from the New Mexico Human Services Department. It all stems back to a decades-old federal consent decree that advocates say the state is still struggling to meet. Issued in 1990, the consent decree came as a result of a class action lawsuit that accused HSD of failing to provide food stamps and Medicaid benefits to recipients. “The state wasn’t processing [food stamp and Medicaid] applications on time.
Amber Wallin, MPA, is the KIDS COUNT Director for New Mexico Voices for Children. Another year… another ranking at the bottom of the barrel. New Mexico has ranked among the worst states in which to be a child for so long that it hardly seems like news anymore. In the 25-plus years that the Annie E. Casey Foundation has been publishing the KIDS COUNT Data Book, we’ve never ranked above 40th. Most years, we’ve ranked in the bottom five, but we can and we must do better by our kids