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US Agency Under Fire for Alleged Telework Fraud

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is seen in Alexandria, Va., Feb. 25, 2011.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is seen in Alexandria, Va., Feb. 25, 2011.

A unit of the United States Government, the United States Patent and Trademark Office, is under scrutiny both by Congress and the news media for alleged fraud perpetrated by employees “teleworking” from home.

Roughly 3,800 of the USPTO’s 8,300 patent examiners work from home full-time. Another 2,700 telecommute part-time.

Investigators have been looking into reports that some of these teleworkers did little or no work but got paid their full salaries. And, the allegations claim supervisors not only knew about it, but also, acted to cover up the situation.

While there have been comments for years within the patent community about these irregularities, a formal probe was launched in 2012 by Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser. His investigation started with the complaints of four internal “whistleblowers” [people who report misconduct]. He then audited various units of the USPTO for possible fraud.

Within the USPTO’s Patent and Trial Appeal Board. 19 new “Paralegal Specialists” were hired in 2009 despite a reported lack of work for them. Zinser’s report says management knew about this, but instructed the paralegals to put down hours watching TV and other personal activities as “other time” so they would get full pay.

According to a story published in August in Government Executive, Zinser’s report said “One senior manager described the billing code as the ‘I don’t have work but I’m going to get paid’ code.”

“Our investigation uncovered substantial, pervasive waste at the PTAB that endured for more than four years, and resulted in the misuse of federal resources totaling at least $5.09 million,” the report said.

Investigative report

The USPTO fraud story has, in recent months, been the subject of investigative reporting by the Washington Post newspaper. And, the story has also caught the eye of U.S. Congressman Darryl Issa (R-CA), the Chairman of the House of Representatives’ Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

In August, Issa’s committee held hearings on the USPTO and the teleworking fraud. On August 19, the committee sent Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker a formal letter citing the newspaper’s reports, and requesting documents on points raised in those stories.

“According to the Post patent examiners ‘repeatedly lied about the hours they were putting in, and many were receiving bonuses for work they didn’t do.’ In one instance, an examiner received full pay despite missing 304 hours of work,” the letter said. “The employee was caught twice for cheating but not fired. Another employee racked up $12,533 in salary while showing no evidence of working.”

“According to one manager, an examiner used a ‘mouse-mover’ program to create the appearance that he was working,” the letter said. “While the manger reported the incident to a top official, no disciplinary action was taken.”

Even more damaging was the contention in the committee’s letter that the report from the USPTO to Inspector General Zinser was substantially altered from its original form.

According to the Washington Post, “USPTO officials removed damaging information from an internal report to avoid disclosure of abuses in the telework program. The internal report ‘describes a culture of fraud that is overlooked by senior leaders, lax enforcement of the rules, and the resulting frustration of many front-line supervisors.’”

This month, Commerce Department and USPTO officials met with the staffs of the House Oversight and Government Reform and the House Judiciary Committees to discuss the points raised by Issa’s letter.

USPTO response

Afterward, USPTO spokesman Todd Elmer countered allegations of selectively editing the Inspector General’s report.

The Post says that Elmer stated that “many of the conclusions” contained in the original report, which Elmer referred to as a “draft,” were “partial and unsupported by the facts and record of the investigation.”

“Since the anonymous complaints [by whistleblowers] 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,” Elmer said in a statement.

Joining Elmer in countering the IG’s report and the Post’s stories is the head of the union that represents federal patent examiners. Robert Budens put out an e-mail to examiners saying the union finds the report contains “unfounded allegations, ridiculous on their face.”

Budens says his union is making an effort to “set the record straight” regarding claims of telework abuse. He says his examiners “are highly educated professionals who have helped this agency turn the tide,” which he called “The top of the ‘Best Places to Work in the Federal Government.’”

Cause for concern

From the outside, the situation at the USPTO is viewed with concern.

“It is always difficult for an employer to ensure that teleworking employees are not sleeping on the job,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen. “But if administrators at the Patent and Trademark Office mislead ethics watchdogs as to the extent of the problem at that government agency, it is the agency itself that needs to be investigated for wrongdoing.”

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    Jeffrey Young

    Jeffrey Young is a Senior Analyst in VOA’s Global English TV.  He has spent years covering global strategic issues, corruption, the Middle East, and Africa. During most of 2013, he was on special assignment in Baghdad and elsewhere with the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR).  Previous VOA activities include video journalism and the “Focus” news analysis unit. He also does journalist training overseas for VOA.