HSD Officials Plead The Fifth In SNAP Hearing

May 16, 2016

For decades, the New Mexico Human Services Department has faced criticism for failing to properly process applications for Medicaid and food assistance, or SNAP benefits.

Several former and current Human Service Department workers testified last month that it was department policy to alter the information on emergency SNAP applications so that people wouldn’t be eligible for benefits.

Testimony continued in court in Las Cruces on Friday. Joey Peters from NMpoliticalreport.com was there and said more witnesses have come forward to testify—a couple of them even came back with more information. He spoke with KUNM's Elaine Baumgartel. 

Peters: Yeah, so two of the workers who testified last month testified again with new information, some with details, more details and documents on how this happened. And another testified that she’d experienced workplace retaliation since first coming forward.

KUNM: Then there was another employee who said something about her email records, what was that about?

Peters: So, one of the employees had said that her emails on a case that she had testified about had been deleted. She didn’t do the deleting herself and she also mentioned that her superiors have access to her emails.

KUNM: What about the four new folks who came forward in the interim since that hearing in April, what did they have to say?

Peters: Same allegations as before, basically, that it was a department policy to add fake assets. These are people that are coming from all over the state, Las Vegas, Silver City, Las Cruces.

KUNM: So we also heard from some current and former officials higher up in the food chain at the Human Services Department. They were called to testify on Friday, and this is kind of the big news, we didn’t hear much from them, talk about that.

Peters: Yeah, they pleaded the Fifth [Amendment]. We had the director of the Income Support Division, the former deputy director and one of the county directors. All plead the fifth, multiple times, almost 100 times total, meaning they didn’t answer any questions that the lawyers asked them, that the plaintiffs asked them.

KUNM: What kind of questions were the lawyers asking them?

Peters: Well, of course they asked about the allegations, but they’re also asking just about basic processing and how that works within HSD. As well as some pretty pointed questions about whether they had instructed this type of fraud to go on and whether they had been retaliating against their employees.

KUNM: As this was happening, what was the mood in the courtroom, what did it feel like?

Peters: Well, I’d never seen someone take the fifth in real life before. It was like a movie. [laughter]

KUNM: [laughter] As opposed to, like, Law and Order or The Good Wife or something like that?

Peters: Yeah, it was dramatic. It was like something out of a movie or TV show. The defense attorneys would cross examine the employees, at first ask for the names of all the managers who instructed this kind of fraud to go on. These employees gave out at least 20 names of different managers.

KUNM: Do you think we’ll maybe see some of those managers called to testify as well?

Peters: Actually, I don’t think so, because we have one more hearing left and it’s going to be closing arguments on this entire case and that’s going to be in early July. The state auditor has started his own investigation. HSD is also doing its own internal investigation.

KUNM: The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty is the organization that has brought these issues into the courtroom. What are they hoping to achieve? Are they looking for members of HSD to be implicated in this, or is there some other kind of outcome they are looking for?

Peters: No, they are looking for an independent monitor** to come in and oversee these functions, these SNAP applications, these Medicaid applications, because they’re using these allegations as evidence that HSD can’t do it on its own. 

**Editor's Note: Just a clarification, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty is not calling for an independent monitor to review what HSD employees are doing in the same way that, for example, the federal monitor is reviewing the Albuquerque Police Department's reforms. Rather, NMCLP is calling for a third party to actually take over some HSD operations, including the processing of applications for things like emergency food assistance.