- Associated Press - Thursday, June 23, 2016

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - The U.S. congressional delegation for New Mexico is recommending a federal investigation into the handling of emergency food assistance benefits by a state agency.

The five-member delegation on Thursday said it wrote to the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to recommend it investigate allegations that the New Mexico Human Services Department falsified asset information on emergency food assistance claims.

Human Services administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and its federally funded benefits.

“Any actions by HSD that have resulted in eligible families and children going hungry need to be identified and rectified immediately, and those responsible need to be held accountable,” the delegation wrote.

A U.S. district court already is weighing whether to appoint an outside authority to oversee the agency’s income assistance division. Several state employees who processed emergency food benefit applications for the division have testified that managers changed or pressured them into changing application information to make it look as if federal deadlines were being met.

The Human Services Department noted in an email Thursday that it is conducting its own investigation, overseen by the state agency’s inspector general, and that it had asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture for assistance. More information about the role of the Department of Agriculture in that probe was not immediately available.

“Our priority is ensuring that New Mexicans who need assistance get the help they need,” the department wrote.

New Mexico state lawmakers last month raised concerns of intimidation of rank-and-file state employees who speak out about the handling of benefit applications, and they wondered whether a fully independent authority should handle further investigations. Some state lawmakers criticized the Human Services Department’s decision to contract an outside attorney to cross-examine witnesses testifying against the agency.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which is leading efforts to have a federal receiver appointed to oversee some agency activities, says the income assistance division continues to struggle to meet federal standards that say 95 percent of applications for expedited emergency assistance need to be processed within the required seven-day limit.

By adding assets to an application, the center says, expedited deadlines were pushed back to 30 days. That would bring the agency into compliance, while poor families go without aid as they gather further documentation to qualify.

Human Services Secretary Brent Earnest has said the agency issued a directive to field staff that information in an application should not be changed under any circumstances.

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