- Associated Press - Monday, May 23, 2016

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - The practice of altering emergency food assistance applications that results in delayed benefits may date back more than a decade, New Mexico lawmakers were told Monday.

In April, a state employee who processed emergency food benefit applications testified in court that superiors changed her notes and put down that an applicant had an additional $400 - delaying immediate delivery of assistance.

Several other employees within the agency have come forward to testify that they were pressured by managers into amending information involving applications to make it look as if federal deadlines were being met.

State Human Services Secretary Brent Earnest told a legislative committee Monday that he heard from agency employees that the practice dates back to 2003 but he did not provide additional details.

The Human Services Department is defending itself in state district court from efforts to appoint a federal receiver to step in and oversee the agency’s income support division.

The inspector general for the Human Services Department has launched an internal investigation. As that inquiry continues, lawmakers on the Health and Human Services Committee raised concerns of intimidation of rank-and-file employees who speak out, and wondered whether an outside authority should handle the probe.

“What I’ve heard is some concern that staff may be reluctant to be fully forthcoming with an internal investigation conducted by the department,” said Sen. Ortiz y Pino, chairman of the committee.

He questioned the intent of aggressive cross examinations and “browbeating” of agency employees as they testified at a court hearing earlier this month in Las Cruces under questioning by outside attorney Paul Kennedy, who was hired by the Human Services Department.

Kennedy declined to comment Monday.

“I just wondered if it’s wise to go along with an approach that basically says, if we’re being accused of something we’re going to defend ourselves even if it later proves to be true,” he said. “And we’re going to do it in a way that puts the workers that brought this to light in a defensive posture.”

Earnest told lawmakers he was troubled by testimony from agency employees that they had seen or had themselves changed emergency food assistance applications.

“It’s important that our employee know that they should be able to speak freely about this and we need to know the truth about what has happened and when and how many times,” he said.

Sovereign Hager, staff attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, is leading legal efforts to have an outside authority appointed to oversee operations of the income assistance division.

She said the 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, she said, the expedited deadline is pushed back to 30 days. That brings the agency into compliance, while poor families must go without aid as they gather further documentation to qualify.

Earnest said a directive has been issued to field staff that “under no circumstances should you ever change information in an application,” and if an application is late, it needs to be handled and processed immediately.

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