LAS CRUCES - The New Mexico Human Services Department needs some change in management, a court-appointed expert said Thursday (June 29) during a U.S. District Court hearing in Las Cruces in a case centering on the agency's long-running backlog of food aid applications from some of the state's poorest residents.
In his first major report in the case, the special master tapped by a judge to monitor the department's management of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program said the state has made progress in reducing some of the backlog in applications. But he also raised concerns about the leadership and oversight of an agency described by a federal official last year as running "the most fouled-up" food stamp program in the country.
"I think the Cabinet secretary needs to take a look at his management team," said Lawrence Parker, who was appointed to the special master position in November.
Some managers are still working at the agency even after a round of federal intervention, he said, and after allegations that supervisors were falsifying information on applications.
A new director, though, recently took charge of the division that manages the food stamp program.
Parker's call for a shake-up came amid what was just the latest hearing in a decades-old lawsuit over the food aid program. The testimony also came after lawyers with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty filed a memo suggesting a judge hold Human Services Secretary Brent Earnest personally accountable for the ongoing problems by imposing a $100-a-day fine for each day the department continues to violate court orders in the case.
Human Services Department staff provided shocking testimony last year about long-held practices of falsifying food aid applications. The employees said their superiors had inflated the incomes of some food aid applicants, leading to benefits being denied or delayed. When called into court, three managers invoked their Fifth Amendment rights, declining to answer questions from lawyers about the allegations.
A federal court later found Earnest in contempt for failing to comply with requirements for managing the food aid program.
Lawyers with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which is representing welfare recipients in the case, say little has changed since then.
Earlier this week, they submitted to the court a copy of an email that they say shows supervisors at the state department recently directed staff members to "withhold information from clients and give local field offices false information."
The April 17 email from Gwen Brubaker, a manager of the department's call center, said employees will not conduct interviews with applicants after 3:30 p.m., near the end of the workday.
"Please make sure that staff are not saying this to the clients, including in emails to offices or in case notes," Brubaker wrote.
Attorney Sovereign Hager told the court Thursday that the email was cause for continued concern about the culture of management at the department.
"The people on this email list include high-level employees," she said. "... We feel like these problems reside in the leadership of the department."
Earnest said the email stemmed from an effort by staff to address the volume of calls flowing into the department's call center. But, he added, "They certainly did it in an improper way."
"You read that email on its face, and it's bad," Earnest said, adding that the department is disciplining staff involved.
Earnest, appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez to head the agency in December 2014, told reporters after the hearing that his staff regularly reviews management.
U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales said data provided by the state gave him reason to be encouraged that New Mexico's government could catch up on its backlog of food aid applications and live up to other requirements imposed by the court.
But he expressed concerns about a lack of confidence in the department and even the numbers it had presented to him.
Parker also said he has struggled to validate some of the department's data.
"I see valid data. I see questionable data. I see some stuff I don't quite understand," he said.
Parker raised concerns, too, about the department's monthslong delays in providing data requested by lawyers from the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.
The center, for example, has sought data on the applications for food aid that the department is denying.
"You may see yourself coming into compliance by January, and that may well be the case, but there's a trust issue," Gonzales told Earnest.
Earnest suggested lawyers in the case might never be satisfied.
"I have very little confidence [they] will ever believe what this department has to say," he told the judge.
The case began in 1988 when Debra Hatten-Gonzales, a single working mother and janitor in Santa Fe, filed a suit against the state for its slow handling of her request for welfare benefits.
The case led to a consent decree in 1990 requiring the Human Services Department to vastly improve its assistance programs for needy families.
Five governors later, the state is still failing to serve some of its most vulnerable residents when they ask for help.
Gonzales did not act Thursday on the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty's call to impose daily fines on Earnest until the department complies with certain court orders.
This story first appearted in The New Mexican, a sister paper of The Taos News.