Skip to main content

Representing the Pro Bono Client: New York Public Assistance and Food Stamp Eligibility 2016


Speaker(s): Denise Acron, Lauren Aaronson, Lester Helfman, Marc Isaacs, Nigel A. Marks, Peter A. Kempner, Rebecca R. Kirchheimer, Saima Akhtar, Samuel L. Spitzberg, Sienna M. Fontaine
Recorded on: Jul. 18, 2016
PLI Program #: 150472

Rebecca Kirchheimer is the Director of Business Process Innovation Projects for the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA). As Director, she is responsible for carrying out Benefits Re-engineering, a modernization initiative bringing 21st century technology and business process change to expand access to benefits for the nearly 1.7 million New Yorkers receiving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Cash Assistance (CA).

With the Office of Business Process Innovation (BPI), Rebecca builds client-driven service channels so that city residents can go online, use a mobile phone, or access a call center to apply for benefits. With BPI, she led the expansion of ACCESS NYC in April 2015 launching a redesigned online application for SNAP used by 30,000 clients per month and an online recertification for SNAP used by 5,000 clients per month. In November 2015, Rebecca helped launch HRA’s first mobile app giving clients the power to upload eligibility documents from a mobile phone or tablet. In January 2016, she helped open a call center for on-demand eligibility interviews, offering 7,000 SNAP clients the ability to complete a benefits eligibility interview at their convenience. This will expand by 70,000 SNAP clients per month in 2017.

Parallel to these efforts, Rebecca designs system innovations to increase the efficiency of HRA’s workforce of over 3,000 SNAP and CA eligibility workers. These innovations include a redesigned case management system, a work tracking system to transform case work to a task-based citywide workload distribution system, as well as the creation of centralized task-based units for document processing, interviewing, and eligibility determination citywide.

Prior to her work for the City of New York, Rebecca coordinated a workforce development and community-based benefits enrollment program for a large social services agency.

Before joining the social services field, Rebecca worked in international development on technical assistance projects such as participatory budgeting and community-run water systems governance with local organizations in Peru and Bolivia on behalf of the San Francisco-based Foundation for Sustainable Development (FSD).

Rebecca is a native New Yorker, and graduate of Wesleyan University and New York University – Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service where she received a Masters of Public Administration.


Saima Akhtar is a Senior Staff Attorney with the Public Benefits Unit in the Albany office of Empire Justice Center.  She works on issues that include Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (food stamps), cash public assistance, emergency assistance, and subsidized childcare.  Saima represents low income clients both in court and in administrative proceedings, and has served as counsel to the class in a number of class action cases in New York’s State and Federal Courts including Brooks v. Roberts, Richard C. v. Proud, and Karamalla v. Divine.  She has also provided continuing legal education sessions for the New York State Bar Association, The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, Practicing Law Institute, and the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association on topics such as SNAP basics, emergency assistance benefits in New York, and basic lawyering skills for new attorneys.  Saima currently serves on the board of directors for New York’s Early Care and Learning Council, where she is the Treasurer and Chair of the finance committee. She is a graduate of Albany Law School of Union University and holds a Masters degree in Public Policy from the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy from the University at Albany. She is a recipient of Albany Law School’s Edward M. Cameron Memorial Prize for her contributions to the area of public interest law and was a 2006 Fellow of the Center for Women in Government and Civil Society at the University at Albany.


Denise Acron is Assistant Corporation Counsel in the Tort Division of the New York City Law Department. Prior to joining the Law Department, she was a Senior Staff Attorney at Manhattan Legal Services where she practiced in the Government Benefits Unit. In that role, she represented low income clients and litigated federal, state, and city cases concerning government benefits. Manhattan Legal Services, which is part of Legal Services NYC, the largest civil legal services provider in the country, fights poverty and seeks racial, social, and economic justice for low-income New Yorkers. Raised in San Diego, California, Denise graduated from Columbia University with honors and Wake Forest University School of Law.


Lester Helfman is a Senior Staff Attorney in the Brooklyn Neighborhood Office of The Legal Aid’s Society’s Civil Practice where he represents clients in administrative proceedings, Article 78 proceedings and affirmative litigation in both state and federal courts, including state and federal class actions.  During his forty year career I legal services, Les has also specialized in housing law, health law and the rights of the elderly, and represented parolees in parole revocation proceedings and writs of habeas corpus.  From 1993–1997, he was Director of Litigation at Queens Legal Services Corp.  Les trains extensively on public benefits issues and administrative and judicial appeal rights.  He co-chairs a work group composed of legal service advocates and NYC Human Resources Administration program and legal staff, working to ensure the integrity of the Fair Hearing system and to establish alternative resolution modalities.  Les is a graduate of Herbert H. Lehman College and New York Law School.


Marc Isaacs is a Principal Hearing Officer for OTDA Office of Administrative Hearings.  He is a member of the senior management team with responsibilities including supervision of the Albany, Long Island and Buffalo regions and the scheduling of statewide hearings.  Marc is a former Assistant District Attorney and also was in private practice.  He received a B.A. from University of Rochester, a J.D. from New York Law School and an LL.M. in Tax Law from New York University.


Ms. Lauren Aaronson has spent almost 20 years helping to transform New York City’s most complex social services programs.  She is the Assistant Deputy Commissioner for Business Process Innovation at NYC’s Human Resources Administration (HRA), the City’s largest social services agency serving almost 2 million of the City’s residents.   In her current capacity, she has the lead role in coordinating the Agency’s wide-reaching Benefits Re-engineering initiative.   The Re-engineering initiative focuses on improving client service, creating cost efficiencies, and enhancing integrity through the use of modernized technology and simplified business processes and policies.  In its first phase she is focusing on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Cash Assistance program.

Prior to her appointment to lead the Benefits Re-engineering program, Lauren served as the Director of Client Solutions at NYC HHS-Connect.  HHS-Connect is the City’s enterprise transformation program focused on using technology to break down information silos and enable data sharing between the City’s eight Health and Human Services agencies.  At HHS-Connect, she implemented a portfolio of complex technology, process, and governance programs that resulted in Agency’s being able to share data and coordinate care in new ways and improved access and service to City residents across benefit programs.  Prior to HHS-Connect, she held various positions at HRA and the Mayor’s Office leading both technology change initiatives and innovative welfare to work programs.


Nigel A. Marks earned a BA in Political Science from Brooklyn College and a JD from Brooklyn Law School.  After working in the private sector, he joined the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) Brooklyn office in May 2001 as a Hearing Officer.  He has also served as a Supervising Hearing Officer and a Principal Hearing Officer at OTDA.  Mr. Marks is currently the Assistant Director of the Office of Administrative Hearings.


Peter Kempner is the Director of the Veterans Justice Project and a Deputy Director of the Housing Unit at Brooklyn Legal Services, where he has worked since September 2001. Mr. Kempner worked in the Comprehensive Rights/HIV Unit since September 2001 where he provided general legal services to clients who are HIV positive. In May 2011, Mr. Kempner help found the Veterans Justice Project at South Brooklyn Legal Services, an innovative general legal services practice focusing on veterans, active duty military personal and their families. He received his J.D. from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in 2001 and was admitted to the New York State Bar in 2002. He received his B.A. in Political Science from the State University of New York College at Purchase in 1996 and he received an M.A. in Political Management from the Graduate School of Political Management at the George Washington University in 1998. He has served as a member of the Social Welfare Law Committee of The Association of the Bar of the City of New York since 2007. Mr. Kempner was elected as the Chairperson of the Social Welfare Law Committee in 2013. Mr. Kempner also sits on the New York State Bar Association’s Committee on Veterans and on the Advisory Committee of the Brooklyn Veterans Treatment Court. Mr. Kempner is admitted to practice in the Eastern and Southern Districts of New York and is certified to practice before the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.


Samuel L. Spitzberg, Esq., is the Director of the Office of Administrative Hearings within the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.  In this role, Sam leads a team of approximately 350 people who are responsible for Intake, Scheduling, Coordinating with Local Districts, Fair Hearings, Compliance, Operations, and Training.  Sam received his Bachelor of Science in Accounting from the University at Albany, State University of New York, and law degree from Hofstra University School of Law.  Sam worked in the private sector for five years before joining the United States Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps.  In the Army, Sam served one tour in Iraq and attained the rank of Major.  Since leaving active military duty, Sam worked with several State agencies including the New York State Inspector General, Office of Medicaid Inspector General, Division of Veterans’ Affairs, and the Commission on Quality of Care and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities.  He is licensed in New York and Georgia.


Sienna Fontaine is the Deputy Legal Director at Make the Road New York (MRNY), a community based organization that aims to build immigrant and working class power through organizing, education and support services.  Prior to joining MRNY, Sienna was the Director of Public Benefits at Legal Services NYC – Bronx (LSNYC-Bronx), where she practiced for 8 years, representing individuals and families in civil litigation and administrative hearings to secure access to and maintain public benefits.   Sienna’s litigation included Johnson v. Berlin, Index No. 400081/10 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. Co.), which resulted in expanding the time frames within which an appellant can request that a defaulted fair hearing be rescheduled.  She began at LSNYC-Bronx as a Skadden Fellow, establishing the Bronx Medical-Legal Advocacy Project; a collaboration between LSNYC-Bronx and Montefiore Hospital to provide direct legal services at two ambulatory family medicine clinics.  Sienna graduated from NYU School of Law in 2007, where she participated in the Medical-Legal Advocacy Clinic, the Family Defense Clinic, and was an editor on the Review of Law and Social Change.  Sienna grew up in the Bay Area, California, and received her B.A. from U.C. Berkeley, where she studied Sociology and Spanish.