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Top Commerce official to employees: ‘Erroneous time-keeping’ is illegal

The Commerce Department issued a stern e-mail to 47,000 employees worldwide this week warning that “erroneous time-keeping” is illegal and reminding them to maintain accurate records of the hours they work.

The “Time and Attendance Broadcast Message” issued Tuesday by Deputy Secretary Bruce Andrews comes a week after the Washington Post reported that some patent examiners at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office repeatedly lied about their hours and received bonuses for work they didn’t do.

Top patent officials removed the most damaging revelations from a report they provided to the agency’s outside watchdog after whistleblower complaints prompted an internal investigation. The review also revealed scant oversight of the agency’s prominent telework program.

MORE: Patent office filters out worst telework abuses in report to its watchdog

“An important aspect of serving the American public as Federal employees is to maintain the public’s trust in how we accomplish our work,” Andrews wrote to employees of the patent and trademark office and 11 other Commerce Department agencies.

“Employees, supervisors, and timekeepers are responsible for ensuring accurate, complete, and timely reporting of the hours worked in each pay period,” the e-mail continued. “This includes the accurate recording of time worked in a telework status, as well as accurately recording leave status to cover periods during our scheduled work week when we are not working.  There are laws governing the use of appropriated funds, and erroneous time keeping could result in violations of these laws.  Your time and attendance records are official documents, which must be accurately maintained.”

Commerce spokesman Jim Hock said in a statement that the missive “is part of our regular practice of informing employees throughout the agency about our operating procedures, systems and policies.”

Two years ago, patent officials appointed an internal team of attorneys, human resources experts and an accountant to look into allegations of time and attendance fraud among examiners and paralegals after Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser referred allegations from whistleblowers of widespread abuses among both workforces.

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.

A separate probe by Zinser’s office 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.

Also Tuesday, the chief government oversight committee in the House of Representatives announced that it has launched its own investigation into possible telework abuse at the patent office and the effort to minimize the findings of the internal review team following the Post’s revelations.

Andrews’s e-mail followed a morale-boosting voice message that Michelle Lee, the patent and trademark office’s deputy director, left on the office phones of all agency employees on Aug. 11, the day after the Post report was published.

“I want you all to know how very proud I am of the work you do every single day,” Lee said in her 90-second e-mail, acknowledging “media reports” that have put the office in the spotlight. “All of your efforts are critical to creating new jobs and growing businesses.”

Lee described the office’s advocacy of “game-changing innovations” and affirmed her support for a telework program she said made patent and telework a “sought-after place to work.”

“Like every great program or organization, there’s always room to improve,” Lee continued. “I want to assure you we’re all continuing to work together to maintain the right balance of incentives and tools that have helped make our state-of-the-art telework program the gold standard.”

“We are all in this together,” she said.