By Lisa Rein September 13 at 8:00 AM
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Va., on Friday, Feb. 25, 2011. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Commerce Department officials told congressional investigators Friday they have launched an internal review of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s telework program following allegations of fraudulent practices.
The officials also said they are seeking an outside consulting firm to advise them on how managers can improve their monitoring of thousands of relatively autonomous employees who review patent applications, according to a congressional aide familiar with the briefing on Capitol Hill.
Among the issues the outside consultant will be asked to address is whether, in their zeal to increase the productivity of examiners in recent years to shrink a backlog of applications, patent office leaders were too quick to give employees bonuses for work they didn’t complete.
Friday’s 90-minute meeting with the staff of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee followed a report in The Washington Post in August that time and attendance fraud is common practice for some patent examiners.
The Post reported on the findings of an internal investigation done by six patent office officials after whistleblowers complained that their colleagues and examiners they supervise repeatedly lied about their hours and got overtime pay and bonuses for work they didn’t do.
A 32-page report completed by the internal team last year revealed a culture of time and attendance abuse and scant oversight of the patent office’s award-winning telework program. But top patent officials removed the most damaging revelations from the report, providing the agency’s inspector general with an account half the length and with many potentially embarrassing findings removed.
On Friday, Commerce and patent office officials told congressional investigators the original report was a draft and said the 16-page document provided to Inspector General Todd Zinser offered a more accurate, balanced account of what interviews with dozens of managers showed, the aide said.
Commerce Department spokesman Jim Hock did not respond to requests for comment on the meeting, which was attended by about 15 congressional aides and legislative staff, attorneys and telework experts at the patent office and Commerce Department, its parent agency.
The Commerce and patent office officials acknowledged to congressional staff that some of the findings in the 32-page report were accurate and of concern to them now as they look at ways to improve the accountability of their employees.
For example, patent examiners are allowed to submit incomplete reviews in order to meet productivity deadlines that ensure their work will be rewarded with bonuses. But the work is not always completed, the officials told congressional investigators.
They also said they believe they have adequate tools to allow managers to make sure the examiners they supervise are working, primarily through e-mail and phone calls. The 32-page review had concluded that many managers feel they have little authority to oversee their employees’ work; examiners have a full day to respond to calls and are not required to log into the agency’s internal Web site, so their bosses do not know if they are at their desks at a given time.
Commerce and patent officials took issue in Friday’s briefing with one of the most alarming practices highlighted by internal reviewers in the 32-page report, called “end-loading.”
More than 70 percent of the 80 managers interviewed told the internal review team that a “significant” number of examiners did not work for long periods, then rushed to get their reviews done at the end of each quarter. The supervisors were concerned that the practice negatively affected the quality of the work.
But on Friday, the officials said many examiners are actually working in the early weeks of the quarter, doing research or speaking with inventors applying for patents. This legwork does not show up in the computer that measures whether they are getting their work done, they told congressional investigators.