(Courtesy: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office)

The head of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office told all agency employees on Friday that time and attendance fraud is “unacceptable” and will be met with disciplinary action, an about-face from a morale-boosting voice-mail message she left on their office phones in August, a day after The Washington Post reported on fraudulent practices.

“Simply put … fraudulent time and attendance recording is unacceptable and must be met with appropriate disciplinary action,” Michelle K. Lee, the agency’s deputy director, said in an e-mail to thousands of employees based at the Alexandria headquarters and across the country.

Lee cited a number of steps she is taking to address the revelations in an internal investigation conducted by six patent office executives last year that showed some patent examiners repeatedly lied about their hours and received bonuses for work they didn’t do.

The investigation was prompted by complaints from four whistleblowers to the agency’s inspector general, who referred them to patent officials.

Top patent officials, however, removed the most damaging conclusions from the report they provided to the inspector general, which revealed poor oversight of the more than 8,000 examiners who review patents and have relatively autonomous work schedules and work rules. The original report showed that few employees who lied about the hours they put in were disciplined. It cast a harsh light on the patent office’s award-winning telework program, which allows thousands of patent examiners to work from home.

In response to The Post’s article, officials at the patent office and the Commerce Department, the patent office’s parent agency, were called to Capitol Hill last week to address the issues. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is investigating.

“These conversations are proving to be a great opportunity to clearly demonstrate how seriously we take our fundamental duty to the American people to properly manage our operations,” Lee wrote in Friday’s e-mail.

She said she is appointing “teams of employees” from across the agency to come up with ways to enforce rules against time and attendance fraud. She also said the agency is training managers and employees and identifying “new ways to improve our oversight and management of these issues.”

These are changes to be expected now that Congress is paying attention. But most of them will need approval from the agency’s union, which is likely to push back against some.

“The agency will likely be obligated to negotiate with POPA and the other unions,” said Robert Budens, president of the Patent Officers Professional Association. We “stand ready to engage with the agency to explore more effective methods for the early intervention and prevention of problems.” But he said the union has not been contacted to start discussions.

The patent office’s response to the revelations of fraudulent practices has shifted dramatically. In her voice mail to employees in August, she said: “All of your efforts are critical to creating new jobs and growing businesses.” She affirmed her support for a telework program she said made the agency a “sought-after place to work.”

But she did not mention the allegations or acknowledge problems.

On Friday, she wrote:

“Since assuming my leadership position at this agency, I have made it my personal goal to ensure that our operations serve as a model of efficiency and effectiveness,” wrote Lee, who is effectively the agency’s head in the absence of a permanent director. “I take these matters very seriously and I will continue to connect with you in the coming days and weeks and keep you informed as we review our operations and look for ways to improve.”