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House committee launches probe of USPTO telework program

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria (Alex Brandon/AP)

This post was updated on Aug. 20 reflect a statement from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

The chief government oversight committee in the House of Representatives announced Tuesday that it has launched an investigation into allegations of telework abuses at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office following revelations that an internal review of the problem was watered down for the agency’s watchdog.

In a letter to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, who oversees the patent office, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) compared “misconduct and apparent efforts by agency officials to conceal wrongdoing” to a 2012 scandal at the General Services Administration, which paid almost $1 million for a Las Vegas junket for 300 employees who partied instead of working.

“Similar gaps in internal agency controls seem to exist at the USPTO,” Issa wrote.

Late Wednesday, patent office spokesman Todd Elmer said in a statement that the agency “welcomes this opportunity to demonstrate that the agency’s award-winning telework programs– and their measurable work production requirements for patent examiners –have been integral to the USPTO’s dramatic, quantifiable progress in fulfilling its core functions of reducing the backlog of patent applications and the wait time for applicants.”

Issa’s investigation was prompted by an Aug. 10 Washington Post report on an internal review of the patent agency’s widely praised telework program, which allows patent examiners, paralegals and other employees to work from home.

Patent officials appointed a team to look into time and attendance fraud among examiners and paralegals two years ago after Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser referred allegations from whistleblowers of widespread abuses.

The inquiry of patent examiners showed almost nonexistent oversight of thousands of highly paid employees who have relatively autonomous work schedules and work rules. It showed that few cheaters who lied about the hours they were putting in were disciplined.

But when the patent office turned over its findings to the inspector general’s office, the most damaging revelations had disappeared.

A separate probe of paralegals who work for the patent office’s appeals board showed most were idle during long stretches over four years because their managers gave them so little work to do during a hiring freeze on new judges.

Issa is seeking documents and communications that patent officials shared on the reviews, including e-mails, by Sept. 2 and is requiring Pritzker and patent officials to brief the committee.