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Patent office hit on work at home

Looks other way as staff slacks off, watchdog says

– Prompted by multiple whistleblower complaints, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office began an internal investigation two years ago of an award-winning program that’s been praised in and outside government: Employees are allowed to work from home.

What the inquiry uncovered was alarming.

Some of the 8,300 patent examiners, about half of whom work from home full time, repeatedly lied about the hours they were putting in, and many were receiving bonuses for work they didn’t do.

And when supervisors had evidence of fraud and asked to have the employee’s computer records pulled, they were rebuffed by top agency officials, ensuring that few cheaters were disciplined, investigators found.

Oversight of the telework program – and of examiners at the Alexandria, Virginia, headquarters – was “completely ineffective,” investigators concluded.

But when it came time last summer for the patent office to turn over the findings to its outside watchdog, the most damaging revelations had disappeared. The report sent to Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser concluded that it was impossible to know whether the whistleblowers’ allegations of systemic abuses were true.

“What we hoped to see was an unfiltered response,” Zinser said. “That’s not what this was. It’s a lot less sensational. The true extent of the problem was not being conveyed to us.”

The original findings, by contrast, raise “fundamental issues” with the business model of the patent office, which oversees an essential function of U.S. commerce, said Zinser, who was quietly provided a copy of the original by a patent official.

The patent office, while relatively obscure, plays a crucial role in supporting the nation’s commerce and economic development. But the agency’s army of examiners and other officials has been falling behind, with a backlog of patent applications swelling to more than 600,000 and estimated waiting times of more than five years.

The Washington Post obtained copies of the internal report and the version provided to the inspector general, which at 16 pages is half the length of the original.

Both reports conclude that policies negotiated with the patent examiners’ union have left managers with few tools to monitor their staffs. Both acknowledge that supervisors have limited access to records that could prove suspected time fraud, resulting in negligible disciplinary action.

But the original one describes a culture of fraud that is overlooked by senior leaders, lax enforcement of the rules and the resulting frustration of many front-line supervisors.

The version provided to the watchdog was far less conclusive, saying that managers who were interviewed held “inconsistent” views on whether examiners were gaming the system.

An agency spokesman, in a statement for this article, described the version sent to the inspector general as a “final, carefully considered, accurate and complete report.”

Chief communications officer Todd Elmer called the original report a “rough draft for discussion purposes” that was an “initial attempt to describe the full investigation record.”

After a review, lawyers in the agency’s Office of General Counsel and chief administrative officer Frederick Steckler decided that “many of the conclusions” in the draft were “partial and unsupported by the facts and record of the investigation,” Elmer said in the statement.

He said the final report contains “a more accurate, complete reflection” of the investigation. Steckler wrote both versions of the report, Elmer said.

The agency’s telework system has served as a model for the Obama administration, which has sought to attract talent by extending similar programs to many corners of the government. In addition to the 3,800 patent examiners who work full time from home, about 2,700 telework on a part-time basis.

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