'It is apparent that HSD and its officials have not exhibited the leadership, oversight, or coordination necessary to implement the Court Orders' - U.S. Magistrate Carmen Garza
Special Master to Run State’s Welfare Programs
BY STAFF AND NM POLITICAL REPORT
A federal magistrate has recommended that the state Human Services Department be held in contempt of court for its behavior in an ongoing case of alleged food-stamp fraud by top HSD officials.
In recommending the contempt finding to federal judges hearing the food-stamp fraud case, Magistrate Carmen Garza wrote that it is “appropriate to ensure” that HSD come into compliance with federal law.
Garza contends that she is “troubled that is took over  hours of status conferences, over  pages of joint status reports submitted to the Court, three days of evidentiary hearings” and fraud allegations from HSD employees to convince the department “to discuss making these types of changes.”
In her contempt recommendation, Garza wrote that “it is apparent that HSD and its officials have not exhibited the leadership, oversight, or coordination necessary to implement the Court Orders.” HSD has been under court order for 26 years to bring its Medicaid and food aid processing into compliance with federal law.
Additionally, last week two federal judges hearing the fraud case against the state appointed a special master to oversee New Mexico’s food and medical assistance programs, the clearest indication yet of the severity of the problems in the programs’ administration by state officials.
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.
HSD’s lawyers had unsuccessfully argued that the special master report to the department and that HSD Secretary Brent Earnest remain in charge.
The ruling gives the special master power to “petition the Court for remedy” if either HSD or the Center makes decisions that are “not consistent with the goals of compliance.”
According to the ruling on the special master, HSD and the plaintiffs in the lawsuit will compromise on picking the special master within the next month. If they can’t agree in the next 45 days, a judge will select from a list of names submitted by both parties.
HSD will pay for the special master.
Sovereign Hager, an attorney with the center, welcomed Garza’s contempt recommendation. “Her opinion is very, very strong in terms of dealing with noncompliance and the ineffectiveness of HSD,” she said. “We feel pretty hopeful of where this is going.”
Garza wrote that the court appreciates that HSD now “now acknowledges” the need for “serious and fundamental changes in order for the [food stamp] and Medicaid programs in New Mexico to come into compliance with federal law.”
NM Political Report reached out to a spokesman for HSD Monday morning and did not hear back.
The Center for Law and Poverty initially recommended the contempt of court finding but later dropped it after arguing that such a recommendation “would not likely coerce” HSD into compliance with federal law, according to Garza’s ruling.
Allegations of Falsifications
The latest factual developments in the case revealed by court testimony in May show a pattern by state officials of falsifying food stamp applications to avoid violating a federal deadline for acting on them.
In a May hearing in Albuquerque, employees testified poor New Mexicans seeking emergency food aid had their applications falsified by state officials to make it look like they had more income than they really had.
Employees alleged the falsification came at the behest of supervisors and other higher-ups in the department and was designed to make sure some applicants no longer qualified for emergency food benefits. Federal law says emergency applications must be processed within seven days; falsely adding the assets, the employees said, would lower the amount of overdue cases.
During that hearing in Las Cruces HSD officials refused to answer questions about the allegations; the officials asserted their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination nearly 100 times.
Since that hearing, the State Auditor and HSD itself launched investigations. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is in charge of food benefits, later acknowledged a pending investigation.
Since their testimony about the alleged falsifications, two HSD employees have complained that they suffered retaliation at work.
This is an edited version of a story that originally appeared on NMPoliticalReport.com, a non-profit online news agency.