Patent Office Exec Tried to Force Subordinates to Hire a Relative's Fiancé

 The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is seen in Alexandria, Va. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is seen in Alexandria, Va. Alex Brandon/AP

A senior official at the Patent and Trademark Office pressured subordinates to hire as an examining attorney a lesser-qualified candidate who was engaged to marry a close relative, the Commerce Department inspector general reported.

The official, who is unnamed in the redacted report released Monday, was found to have violated several provisions of U.S. Code Title 5 by advancing the candidate “twice after his application had effectively been rejected by subordinates” and the job-seeker was not selected for a first interview.

The alleged nepotism prompted an anonymous letter to the Commerce watchdog complaining that the applicant’s “primary qualifications [were] that he [was] engaged to [the relative] and in need of a job.” The probe found that the executive communicates with the relative every two weeks, that the two are “close” to the extent of providing occasional financial support. The executive had known the applicant for four years, interviews revealed.

"Our investigation substantiated the whistleblower's allegations that not only did the USPTO executive exert undue influence in the hiring process but that the applicant was not among the most qualified candidates as determined by the USPTO hiring officials," Inspector General Todd Zinser said. "After the applicant was rejected, the executive intervened and created an additional position specifically for the applicant."

Beyond these violations of law, the IG also found that the executive’s conduct “reflected poor judgment,” the IG wrote. “As a senior manager in the federal government, [the executive] should have known about the federal laws governing hiring and should have steered clear of any appearance of impropriety. At a minimum, [the executive] should have sought ethics-related guidance from authorized ethics officials and acted accordingly.”

In broader comments, the IG noted that Patent Office employees often make recommendations on which applicants merit interviews. But “without a procedure defining how such recommendations will be accepted and weighed and who will view or hear such recommendations, such practices invite preferential treatment, favoritism, and unfair, unequal competition for USPTO employment; can unfairly influence and pressure employees in hiring; and can result in violations of federal regulations and statutes,” the IG said. “At a minimum, the current practice creates the perception that such improper conditions exist.”

The IG recommended improving training in the law’s requirements for hiring managers to recuse themselves from hiring decisions involving persons in a “covered” relationship.

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