Published: 1:00 pm, Thu. Jul. 7th, 2016Updated: 2:41 pm
The director of an office overseeing supplementary food and financial assistance within the New Mexico Human Services Department has been reassigned amid state and federal inquiries into that office’s handling of benefit applications.
The secretary of the Human Services Department announced in an email to agency employees that Marilyn Martinez is no longer director of the income support division and will instead oversee the agency’s financial services bureau. Martinez could not immediately be reached.
Human Services spokesman Kyler Nerison said Wednesday the management change is unrelated to an ongoing internal investigation of the division’s handling of emergency benefits applications under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
Martinez invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when called in May to testify in federal court about allegations that managers changed or pressured workers into changing application information for emergency food benefits. Human Services Secretary Brent Earnest and Deputy Secretary Sean Pearson will oversee the division until a new appointment can be made.
Sovereign Hager, an attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, said the management shakeup does not resolve concerns that the Human Services Department lacks the expertise and resources to keep up with the administration of supplemental food and other public benefits.
The center made final arguments Wednesday in federal district court at Las Cruces to have a federal receiver appointed to take over New Mexico’s handling of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program as well as some Medicaid benefits, where deadlines have been missed under prior federal court orders.
“We agree that their leadership needs assistance,” she said.
The Human Services Department proposed another alternative: a so-called special master with expertise in benefit applications to oversee changes made by the state agency. Hager said that proposed position would lack the authority to ensure compliance with court orders.
“What we want is for the court to appoint someone who has the authority to do the job,” she said.
Federal Magistrate Judge Carmen Garza has yet to rule on the matter. On Wednesday, she ordered that results be made public of the internal investigation by the inspector general of the Human Services Department into allegations that the agency altered emergency food benefit applications.
Human Services Inspector General Adrian Gallegos told the court he has not yet drawn conclusions after reviewing 13,000 food assistance applications and finding more than 200 instances where caseworkers made changes to income or assets.
The Human Services Department is struggling to meet federal standards that say 95 percent of applications for expedited emergency food assistance need to be processed within the required seven days. Consumer advocates say that by adding assets to an application, expedited deadlines are pushed back to 30 days. That practice would bring the agency into compliance, while poor families go without aid as they wait or gather further documentation to qualify.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has opened its own investigation of altered food benefit applications in New Mexico.