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Correction appended

ALBUQUERQUE — Five state employees testified in federal court Thursday that New Mexico Human Services Department officials falsified income information on emergency applications for people seeking welfare benefits, resulting in wrongly denied food assistance to the poorest citizens in the state.

At a daylong hearing in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Carmen Garza that stretched into the evening, the state workers said they sometimes entered false asset information on emergency requests for food assistance as a part of a state policy created just as Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration came under federal scrutiny for its high rates of denying emergency requests for aid.

The New Mexico Human Services Department is required to fulfill emergency food requests within seven days of receiving an application for such assistance. Yet the employees, testifying under oath, said they sometimes altered the requests to reflect that those applying for the assistance had up to $400 in assets that did not exist, leading to the applications being denied or delayed.

At issue in the hearing was whether elements of the Human Services Department’s medical and food assistance programs should be put into a limited receivership in which a monitor oversees the state’s compliance with federal law.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, an Albuquerque nonprofit representing the plaintiffs in the case, argues that the state has been out of compliance with several court orders on how it notifies welfare beneficiaries of the status of their requests for food or medical assistance, resulting in illegally delayed or denied benefits. Friday’s hearing was one of dozens in a decades-old lawsuit filed against the department by welfare beneficiaries. Human Services then agreed in court orders to write its notices in clearer language and to revamp employee training on how to screen welfare applications.

Margaret Vasquez-Padilla, a family assistance analyst with the Human Services Department who processes applications for benefits, said her superiors changed her case notes on an application for emergency food assistance by putting down that the applicant had $400.

“This has happened before,” she said when asked why she had copied her original case notes. “I needed to keep copies for myself to make sure I was not implicated.”

She and other employees said management with the department’s Income Support Division pressured them in April 2015 to make sure the state’s data on emergency food requests did not reflect that the department was failing to fulfill the requests within seven days. The employees called themselves whistleblowers, saying they fear retaliation for speaking out about the practice.

Angela Dominguez, who processes such applications in Portales, said superiors told her and her colleagues to give “consistent answers” to federal regulators who were expressing concerns about whether the department was denying emergency requests at a high rate.

Brent Earnest, secretary of the Human Services Department, acknowledged under oath that the department has not met deadlines laid out in court orders that require his agency to do things such as train employees on how to properly screen immigrants for benefits.

But Earnest testified that putting the food and medical assistance programs under receivership would be an “extraordinary remedy” that would “delay and further complicate compliance” with the court orders in the case. Hiring an independent monitor, he added, would also cost the state, diverting money from the programs that help the needy.

In a sometimes times testy cross-examination, New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty Legal Director Gail Evans said her group made the department aware of problems with how it trains workers to process immigrants’ welfare applications.

She told Earnest that her group notified the state of such problems in 2007.

Human Services employees previously acknowledged at the hearing that employee training guides did not specify that pregnant women and children with green cards do not have to wait five years to receive medical assistance.

“I believe that having employees properly trained is important,” Earnest said, “absolutely.”

The hearing stopped after Garza, the magistrate judge, told Laura Galindo, deputy director of Human Services’ Income Support Division, to seek legal counsel on whether she should invoke her Fifth Amendment right not to testify against herself. Galindo was set to answer questions about the emergency applications for food assistance.

Garza made no rulings in the case, and the hearing is expected to continue next week.

Justin Horwath can be reached at 505-986-3017 or jhorwath@sfnewmexican.com.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that five state employees testified in court that they falsified income information on emergency requests for food aid. One employee said she falsified the requests while the four others testified that supervisors falsified the requests.