SANTA FE, N.M. — A federal judge held New Mexico’s top human services official in contempt Tuesday for failing to comply with court orders aimed at improving the administration of food aid and Medicaid health care benefits.
The contempt order against Human Services Department Secretary Brent Earnest by U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Gonzales upheld findings that the cabinet secretary did not diligently attempt to comply with court orders concerning the handling of Medicaid benefit renewals, eligibility for immigrants, training for agency employees and other administrative requirements.
Gonzales said objections filed by the agency were without merit. “It remains clear that HSD and its officials have failed to exercise the leadership, control and managerial oversight to effectively come into compliance with the court orders,” the judge wrote.
A spokesman for the Human Services Department strongly disagreed with the judge’s characterization of the agency.
Spokesman Kyler Nerison said in email that the contempt order “doesn’t take into account all of our efforts to resolve long-standing issues — some of which are three decades old and occurred under several administrations.”
The contempt finding accompanies the judge’s earlier approval of plans for a court-appointed special master to help ensure federally funded benefits are administered properly amid internal investigations by state and federal agencies into allegations that emergency food aid applications were falsified by agency staff.
The civil contempt order carries no additional sanctions or penalties.
Sovereign Hager, an attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and advocate for aid beneficiaries in the litigation, said the order sends a strong message nonetheless. “I think this is a message that if things don’t work out with a special master and the state doesn’t come into compliance, the court will look to harsher remedies,” she said.
The contempt findings respond in part to court testimony by Human Service Department caseworkers that expedited food aid applications were falsified to meet federal deadlines — sometimes under pressure from management — likely delaying the delivery of benefits as a result.