GOP chafes at federal paralegals’ idleness; lawmakers criticize top patent official

(Courtesy: US Patent and Trademark Office)
(Courtesy: US Patent and Trademark Office)

Conservative Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee were not happy to learn this week that paralegals at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s appeals board got paid to goof off  at home for years because they were given so little work to do.

And when a top agency official just happened to be scheduled to testify before the panel on other matters, several lawmakers wasted no time in flogging her.

“How long would someone be employed in the company you work for under those circumstances?” Rep. Thomas Marino (R-Pa.) asked Michelle Lee, the patent office’s deputy director, referring to this week’s investigation by the Commerce Department’s inspector general.

“They wouldn’t be employed for very long,” Marino fumed at the hearing late Thursday.

Marino was not just angry that dozens of paralegals who work from home processing patent appeals were idle for most of their time between 2009 and 2013. He said their bosses — who knew they weren’t working as a backlog of appeals of patent examinations piled up and did nothing to find assignments for them — should be fired.

“The left hand doesn’t even know what the right hand is doing,” Marino bellowed at Lee. “We have supervisors and managers in charge of these people who [knew what was going on].  It’s unbelievable what takes place anymore. ”

As Inspector General Todd Zinser’s probe revealed, managers and even judges at the Patent Trial and Appeal Board had little work to give their legal support staff. A hoped-for hiring blitz of appeals judges to adjudicate the backlog did not materialize for years because of fiscal pressures.

But Marino and several other Republicans on the judicial panel said the idea that government employees were being paid to work –$5 million, including generous bonuses of up to $3,500 a year –while they surfed the Internet, shopped and did laundry, was outrageous.

Marino said the investigation confirmed that the federal government “needs to be downsized by 50 percent.”

Lee, however, wouldn’t give an inch. While she said her agency “takes these allegations very seriously” and already has made changes to make the paralegal staff more productive, she would not commit to firing the managers at the appeals board  responsible for the lack of work.

“We will get back to you on those issues,” Lee said. “We’ll take appropriate action.”

“What’s appropriate action?” the congressman asked.

“We will evaluate all options, including the one you mentioned,” she answered.

In the heat of the exchange, neither party acknowledged the difficulty of firing civil servants just like that.

The exasperated congressman fired back:

“What I’m getting from you now is, they probably won’t be fired.”

Lisa Rein covers the federal workforce and issues that concern the management of government.
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