The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Patent office whistleblower: ‘Managers have no idea when their employees are working’

With top Commerce Department officials headed to Capitol Hill Friday to answer allegations about fraudulent practices by patent examiners, the Washington Post this week obtained copies of the whistleblower complaints that set in motion a series of investigations of the patent office.

Four whistleblowers, at least two of them managers, submitted lengthy, detailed accounts to an anonymous hotline set up by the Commerce inspector general’s office in 2012. The accounts described widespread time and attendance fraud by examiners at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

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The employees recounted how they tried and failed to stop what they called routine cheating on timesheets, bonuses to examiners who did not do the work they were rewarded for and a culture of management looking the other way that diminishes the work of honest employees.

“I come to work everyday and my office mate almost never comes to work,” one patent examiner wrote. “She brags to me that she does not have to work! She does not do any work for day and days, but pretends she is working and is lying. She even lies and gets paid extra overtime money…She tells me I should do this too, because it is so easy.”

The examiner alerted a supervisor about the fraud, but “he says he cannot do anything as long as she meets her production,” the whistleblower wrote.

The Commerce Department, the patent office’s parent agency, was called to brief the staffs of the House Oversight and Government Reform and Judiciary committees Friday after the Post reported in August that some patent examiners repeated lied about their hours and received bonuses for work they didn’t do.

Those were some of the findings of an internal investigation conducted by six executives in the patent office after Inspector General Todd Zinser referred the whistleblowers’ complaints to the agency. Zinser asked the agency to conduct its own probe of the allegations, which focus on the autonomy granted to experts who review patent applications from home.

A 32-page report produced 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 Zinser’s office with an account half the length and with many potentially embarrassing findings removed. A spokesman for the patent office called the longer report, which was revised by the general counsel’s office, a “draft” that was inaccurate.

The spokesman, Todd Elmer, said  “many of the conclusions” in the draft were “partial and unsupported by the facts and record of the investigation.” He said the final report contains “a more accurate, complete reflection” of the investigation.

Commerce officials intend to rebut the conclusions of the first report, say officials familiar with the agency’s plan, and to argue that the patent office has strict production requirements examiners must follow when they reviewing patent applications.

The whistleblower complaints, however, describe a work culture that does not seem to hold examiners accountable for their time.

“What will you do next?” one whistleblower wrote, in an apparent reference to patent office leaders. “Pay them bonuses for showing up to work? Or a bonus and supplemental bonus for just logging [in]to their computer while they are away on vacation?”

An exasperated supervisor complained of feeling toothless and unable to perform his or her job.

“I cannot make them work and there are no consequences if they do not work,” the manager wrote of the examiners under his or her supervision. “They are able to get away with so much and still get good ratings.”

“As a government employee, I can no longer sit by and watch this problem get any worse,” the supervisor’s complaint continued. “We have lost sight that we are a government agency who works for the taxpayers. We are not accountable to the taxpayers.”

“If you were to investigate the hours our employees are actually working,you would see the extent of [the fraud],” another whistleblower wrote. “Based on me and my friends, the problem is severe.”

Two whistleblowers said they were concerned that the union representing patent examiners has excessive influence over working conditions at the agency, and has negotiated work rules that leave managers with next to no oversight over employees they supervise.

“It has been made very clear to us managers that the examiner union now controls the agency,” one supervisor wrote, describing how “all of our ideas and initiatives and even management-only guidance needs to be approved by them.”

The president of the union representing federal patent examiners this week dismissed the allegations of fraud as “unfounded” and “ridiculous on their face.”