Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), an early champion of letting federal employees work from home, said the reports of time and attendance fraud could undermine the government’s expanding use of telework.
“There must be a zero-tolerance policy for fraud and abuse,” Wolf wrote Monday to U.S. Attorney Dana Boente, the top federal prosecutor for the Eastern District of Virginia, which encompasses Northern Virginia and the Richmond and Tidewater areas.
“I believe it is important for federal prosecutors to independently review these allegations for criminal wrongdoing,” Wolf wrote. “A clear message must be sent to anyone in the government that fraudulent activity is unacceptable and will be met with punishment.”
Wolf’s referral to the U.S. attorney’s office follows a report in The Washington Post that time and attendance fraud are common practices for some of the government’s highly paid patent examiners, thousands of whom work from home.
The Post reported on the findings of an internal investigation done by six officials at the Alexandria-based U.S. Patent and Telework office after whistleblowers complained that some of their colleagues routinely cheated on timesheets. The whistleblowers said some examiners collected bonuses for work they didn’t do, and described a culture of management looking the other way that they said diminishes the work of honest employees.
A 32-page report completed by the internal team last year revealed scant oversight of the patent office’s award-winning telework program. But top patent officials removed the most damaging revelations from the report, providing the agency’s inspector general with an account half the length and with many potentially embarrassing findings removed.
Patent officials said the initial report was a draft that did not accurately reflect the interviews with managers, which they said were more balanced.
On Tuesday, Commerce Department spokesman Jim Hock said in a statement that “fraudulent time and attendance recording is unacceptable, and must be met with appropriate disciplinary action.”
“We take these allegations very seriously,” the statement said. “Our telework program has proven results, and we are committed to improving its operations. The USPTO works very hard to address any time and attendance abuse and to take appropriate action when justified by the facts.”
In recent years, the patent office has addressed the vast majority of time and attendance fraud by requiring cheaters to go into counseling and occasionally suspending them, according to officials at the agency with knowledge of its employee-relations practices.
Employees found to have broken the rules have not been required to return money to the government they were paid for hours they didn’t work, the officials said — one likely outcome of any criminal prosecution.
Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr declined comment.
Wolf, who is serving his 17th term in the House, is chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees spending for the Commerce Department.
Commerce and patent office officials were called to Capitol Hill last Friday to answer the allegations. They told congressional investigators that they have launched an internal review of their telework program and are seeking an outside consulting firm to advise them on how managers can improve their monitoring of more than 8,000 patent examiners.