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Patent Office Confirms Concerns Over Telework Fraud

Agency chiefs says new policies were implemented to curb abuse.

The Patent and Trademark Office acknowledged there may be something to the allegations that many of its teleworking examiners are filing fraudulent time sheets, according to a Washington Post report.

Following a briefing Friday by agency executives with staff on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Patent Office chief spokesman Todd Elmer confirmed that the Patent Office was now reviewing procedures for its award-winning telework program due to the allegations of fraud.

“We at the USPTO take very seriously our duty to carefully manage our telework program and closely track its measurable work production and time and attendance requirements for all examiners,” Elmer said in a statement.

“When serious concerns such as these are raised, we are committed to addressing them and taking any measures necessary to improve the program’s operations.  That is why, since the anonymous complaints at issue were first raised two years ago, we have implemented new requirements for all teleworkers and provided new policies for supervisors so they can identify any potential abuse and take appropriate actions. We know that our telework program is too valuable—to the agency and to the American innovators it serves—to accept anything less than its optimal performance.”

The Post in August broke a controversial story saying that a significant number of poorly supervised patent examiners were submitting padded attendance reports, according to an internal agency draft report. That report was later reworked and softened by the agency’s general counsel and chief administrative officer, who said the original report was inaccurate.

Many USPTO employees defended the agency’s telework program as essential to its productivity.

Friday’s congressional briefing followed an August announcement by panel Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who said he would probe telecommuting abuse at the Patent Office, which has also been reported by Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser.

Robert Budens, president of the Patent Office Professional Association, on Sept. 8 published a message on the organization’s website defending the agency’s telework practices and reporting a recent series of almost daily meetings on the topic with top managers.

“These recent disparaging news articles have painted a very negative picture of the USPTO and its employees that simply is not true,” he wrote. “Any organization as big as the USPTO (12,000- plus employees), whether in the public or private sector, will have a small number of employees who run into difficulties of one sort or another.  These difficulties can and do occur irrespective of whether the employee teleworks or not.”

He accused the Post of “poor journalistic rigor,” arguing that patent examiners “have the most tightly written, objective Performance Appraisal Plan in the whole federal government.  Examiners’ time is tracked to six-minute intervals (1/10 of an hour),” he said. “The PAPs require accountability for examiners’ time by assigning a certain number of hours to do a case for each examiner based on the particular technology being examined and the experience and authority of that examiner. In those cases where an examiner, or any USPTO employee for that matter, is not meeting his/her performance standards, the USPTO has shown itself year after year to be quite capable at disciplining the employee up to and including removal from federal service.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., ranking member on the Oversight panel, said in an email to Government Executive, “The allegations we have heard are troubling, and I appreciate that the PTO is taking steps to address them.  In the meantime, I have asked my staff to examine the results of the agency’s internal and third party reviews of the office’s telework program.” 

CLARIFICATION: The original version of this story stated PTO acknowledged concerns about telework fraud for the "first time." The Patent Office has acknowledged isolated, but not any systemic problems in its telework program.