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.
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.
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 —Two employees who testified in federal court about alleged falsification of food aid applications at the state Human Services Department have since claimed that the agency retaliated against them. [perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]No ads. No clickbait. Just news. [/perfectpullquote]This is according to testimony from a federal court hearing this week in an ongoing federal lawsuit, where plaintiffs accuse HSD of instructing employees to falsely add assets to some applications for Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance 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.