Alex Brandon/AP file photo

This May Be The Worst Abuse of Federal Telework Ever

Patent Office paid 19 union paralegals $5 million to surf the Internet and shop—and then gave them bonuses.

A unit within the Patent and Trademark Office is on the hot seat after an inspector general reported that 19 paralegals over a four-year period were given so little work that they passed the time catching up on personal chores.

Supervisors at the Patent Trial and Appeal Board looked the other way as the workers booked their hours under a special billing code labeled “other time,” according to a report released Tuesday by the Commerce Department inspector general.

As revealed by anonymous whistleblowers and subsequent interviews by auditors, the paralegals on the payroll watched television, surfed the Internet, used Facebook, performed volunteer work for a charity, washed laundry, exercised at home, read books and magazines, shopped online or cleaned dishes.

PTAB managers “were completely aware of the volume of ‘other time’ hours during the relevant time frame and took little action to prevent such waste,” the IG said, noting that the workers were underemployed despite a backlog of patent cases before their supervising judges. The nonproductive time was often as much as 50 to 70 hours in an 80-hour pay period. “Worse, PTAB managers rewarded these paralegals . . . with performance bonuses of thousands of dollars apiece,” the audit said. Bonuses ranged from $2,000 to $3,500 annually.

One senior manager described the billing code as the “I don’t have work but I’m going to get paid code,” according to the report. Commerce IG Todd Zinser pegged the total cost to the Treasury over four years at $5.1 million.

One reason for the excess hiring, the report notes, is that judges in 2009 feared a coming hiring freeze and overruled some managers to place more support staff at the ready.

Some managers felt constrained by the contract the employees have with the National Treasury Employees Union, the report noted. The managers’ efforts to create “special projects” for the paralegals, the report said, were “feeble, half-hearted and ineffective,” the 18-month probe found.

“Because we found that the nature of PTAB’s telework programs -- and particularly the combined effect of these programs -- created an environment vulnerable to abuse, the PTAB should institute clear telework rules,” the IG recommended, along with regular training for supervisors and employees.

NTEU National President Colleen M. Kelley defended the paralegals in a statement: “These frontline employees wanted to work. They let managers know that and ultimately some of them went to the Inspector General about the lack of work, which instigated this report.”

The episode generated some sparks at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday during routine testimony from Michelle K. Lee, the deputy undersecretary of Commerce for intellectual property and deputy director of the Patent and Trademark Office. Lee assumed her position in January.

“I’m tired of hearing about this,” Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., said as he asked Lee whether these employees would be fired. “In the private sector, these people wouldn’t be employed long. And to add insult to injury, they’ll get put on administrative leave. It’s a perfect example of how government has grown, and the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.” The solution, Marino added, is to cut government by 50 percent across the board.

“We take the issue very seriously,” Lee replied, noting that she had received the report only the day before. “We are evaluating all options, including the one you mentioned,” referring to firings.