For the first time since allegations surfaced that state employees falsify food stamps applications, New Mexicans heard testimony from public officials Thursday.
The Human Services Department's Inspector General Adrian Gallegos told the court that he launched an internal investigation soon after workers testified about doctored applications at the end of April. He said one of his own investigators had known about the practice, too.
Gallegos said they looked through hard drives and emails from county managers, and dug through applications. And they did flag 260 of them.
But it’s really just the tip of the iceberg. That was only three months of applications, and an employee told investigators that the practice dates back at least 24 years. Gallegos testified that another worker came forward with an instance of a changed application from just this week.
After the hearing, I caught up with Gail Evans from the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty right outside the federal courthouse. She’s been working on this case for 11 years and her team picked apart HSD’s internal investigation in court.
“First of all, the inspector general hasn’t spoken to the very people who were named in the court as falsifying assets on New Mexicans applications,” she said. “So it doesn’t make a lot of sense to us why this report would come out two months later and the key players who have been named—key people in positions of power—still have not been interviewed.”
To many of these kinds of questions in court about why he did or didn’t do something, Gallegos said “I’m just not there yet” or “I’m not ready.” He explained he wants to collect all of the evidence before conducting interviews. There are limited resources in his office, Gallegos said, and so he might team up with the attorney general or the U.S. Attorney’s Office to launch a bigger investigation.
The thrust of the Human Services Department’s argument is that an outsider should not be put in charge of processing applications. Instead, they want a monitor who would report to the court.
“The problem,” Evans responded, “is that what they are proposing is somebody who would not have authority to actually make decisions, take action, and get the department into compliance with the law.”
The Center on Law and Poverty argued things have been messed up in the processing of applications for both food stamps and Medicaid for decades, and hundreds of the most low-income people in New Mexico are paying the price.
“They want someone who would come in and simply make recommendations to them about what needs to be done,” she said.
Human Services Department Secretary Brent Earnest and his attorneys refused our requests for an interview after the court adjourned.
But Earnest testified that he learned about the falsifying of the food stamps applications for the first time in court a couple of months back. He said he immediately issued a directive that no one should ever make up info and add it to an application. Last week, he demoted the person in charge of the Income Support Division.
Earnest said he never directed staff to doctor applications, and he said he recently told all supervisors and managers that retaliation against the nine people who testified about the practice would not be tolerated. So far, two of those employees have filed retaliation claims.
After the hearing, I went to the union hall around the corner and met with state workers who’d been observing the hearing all day.
Jeannette Roybal is one of the whistleblowers who testified about falsified SNAP applications. I asked her why people didn’t bring these problems to light right away.
“Fear of retaliation from the upper management,” she explained. “As it is, I always get looked down upon because I’m pretty vocal in my office.”
Frederick Garcia said managers were often the ones who went in and changed the applications – he processes food stamp requests as well. He said it’s hard to complain to your immediate boss about the ethics of what they’re doing.
“We make a complaint to management, it gets brushed off,” he said. “They really don’t act on it.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture—which oversees food stamps nationally—has threatened sanctions if these issues aren’t resolved quickly, according to the state’s lawyers. It’s not clear when the judge will make a decision.