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Report: Agency Leaders Protected Teleworkers Who Lied About Their Hours

Patent Office's vaunted telecommuting program has a credibility problem.

Employees of the Patent and Trademark Office, who’ve long enjoyed status working for one of the top agencies for telecommuting, awoke on Monday to a Washington Post exclusive that casts a shadow over some 4,000 patent examiners who work from home.

According to the Post’s Lisa Rein, who obtained an internal investigation report, “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.”

Some of the telework abusers allegedly “end loaded” their work, moving slowly and the rushing toward the end of the quarter to catch up.

The story comes just 10 days after the Commerce Department inspector general reported that a unit within the Patent Office paid 19 paralegals more than $5 million over a four-year period to essentially do whatever they wished because there wasn’t enough work to keep them busy.

The Post reported that agency officials altered an internal report on the telecommuting abuses and released a shorter version that was damaging enough to challenge the agency’s entire telecommuting business model. “What we hoped to see was an unfiltered response,” Inspector General Todd 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.”

Commerce Department spokesman Todd Elmer stressed in a statement that officials monitoring the Patent Office’s award-winning telework program place “great emphasis on preserving and constantly improving the integrity of these programs which have, in turn, played an important supporting role in USPTO’s dramatic reduction in the backlog of patent applications in recent years.”

Elmer also emphasized the agency’s desire to cooperate with inspector general requests. “In the normal, thorough process of preparing its response to this and all OIG requests,” the statement said, “the agency created rough draft reports for consideration and discussion before reaching a final, signed version of the report . . .  As part of standard protocol, the USPTO’s Office of the general counsel and the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer jointly reviewed the draft document and concluded that it was incomplete, inaccurate, and that it reflected only a partial characterization of the entirety of the full record.”

Those officials viewed “many of the conclusions reached in the draft report to be partial and unsupported by the facts and record of the investigation,” Elmer said, “and thus counseled that the final, signed, draft of the report contain a more accurate, complete reflection of the entirety of the investigation’s record of interviews and supporting data, which it ultimately did.”  

Both versions of the report say "policies negotiated with the patent examiners’ union have left managers with few tools to monitor their staffs,” the Post said. Examiners are represented by the Patent Office Professional Association, which could not be reached for comment.

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents trademark attorneys, support staff paralegals and information technology specialists at the Patent Office, said in a statement that “The telework program involving trademark attorneys was begun in 1997 and is a federal government success story . . . Since 2007, trademark application processing time decreased from 13.4 months to 10 months, while annual trademark application filings increased substantially in the last few years.”

As for the Post story, Kelley said, “There is nothing in NTEU’s telework agreements that prevents managers from addressing abuse of the system or from managing the workforce.”

The alleged telecommuting abuse was brought to light by whistleblowers.

Watchdog Zinser’s own conduct toward whistleblowers, however, has been under fire from House members of both parties.

On July 17, eight members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee wrote to Zinser demanding personal journals related to a recent Office of Special Counsel probe of alleged retaliation against whistleblowers by his deputies and hiring of personal friends.

A spokesman for Zinser had no comment on the Post telework abuse story but told Government Executive that the IG met the committee’s July 31 deadline for turning over the requested documents and is cooperating with the overseers.

Correction: The original story said, incorrectly, that NTEU represents patent attorneys. The union represents trademark attorneys. The story has been corrected.

(Image via Iablonskyi Mykola/Shutterstock.com)