SANTA FE – A ranking New Mexico Senate Democrat called Wednesday for the resignation of Human Services Secretary Brent Earnest in the wake of court testimony on the agency’s handling of a federal food assistance program.
Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, who is the chairman of the interim Health and Human Services Committee, said in a statement that it was “unacceptable” that New Mexicans may have been denied food stamp benefits because their applications were falsified by agency workers, an allegation made by some current and former HSD employees under oath.
“Needy families in New Mexico have suffered because of Secretary Earnest’s conduct as the head of HSD,” Ortiz y Pino said Wednesday. “There has been no willingness to take responsibility, and no accountability from this administration over the scandal. New Mexicans deserve much better.”
In response, a Human Services Department spokesman blasted Ortiz y Pino but did not directly address the recent testimony.
“This is a blatant political stunt from an out-of-touch extremist who is on record calling child abuse ‘acts of passion,’ ” HSD spokesman Kyler Nerison told the Journal. “He has no credibility whatsoever.”
Ortiz y Pino, a former social worker, has previously said his 2013 comment about child abuse being a “crime of passion” was taken out of context.
He said Wednesday that Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration has frequently resorted to “name-calling” in response to criticism, adding, “It is sad that they have nothing substantive to say about the families who were fraudulently denied emergency food assistance by department employees who were instructed by HSD higher-ups to forge documents.”
Human Services Department employees from offices around New Mexico testified at a hearing in Albuquerque last month that they were told to make the changes to avoid time-related guidelines for “expedited” or emergency assistance.
Earnest also testified at the hearing that the agency has made mistakes in administering the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, but maintained the agency has never willfully disobeyed court orders.
The hearing was part of an ongoing lawsuit brought by the New Mexico Center for Law and Poverty, which contends the state agency has continued to wrongfully deny food stamp benefits.
At a more recent hearing in Las Cruces, three HSD officials invoked their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination nearly 100 times, according to the New Mexico Political Report, an online news site.
Since that hearing, a federal magistrate has ordered the agency to file a report by the end of June on its internal probe into employee allegations.
On Wednesday, Ortiz y Pino said that if Earnest does not resign, he should step aside and allow a judge to appoint a monitor to oversee the administration of HSD’s food assistance program.
Earnest took over as HSD secretary – after Martinez picked him for the job – in December 2014 after the agency’s former secretary, Sidonie Squier stepped down.