A federal patent examiner racked up more than 18 weeks of pay last year for work he didn’t do, but his manager didn’t notice until he received an anonymous letter claiming the employee only showed up for his job sporadically and turned in work that was “garbage.”
The letter turned out to be spot on, according to an investigation released this week by the watchdog for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The examiner, a poor performer for years who was never disciplined, came and went as he pleased, swiping his badge through the turnstile at the patent office headquarters in Alexandria, Va., where he was assigned to work.
He frequently told colleagues he was leaving work to go to the local golf driving range, play pool or grab a beer — then claimed a full day on the job on his time sheet. On most of the days when the examiner was gaming the system, “there was no evidence” he even went to the office or did any work on his government-issued laptop, investigators found.
The probe by the acting inspector general for the Commerce Department, the patent office’s parent agency, offers the latest disclosure of payroll fraud since a scandal exploded a year ago following a Washington Post report that some of the 8,300 patent examiners, about half of whom work from home full time, repeatedly lied about the hours they were putting in, and received bonuses for work they didn’t do.
But the new revelation is the most egregious example to surface so far of an examiner defrauding the government for work not done.
Investigators for acting Inspector General David Smith documented how the examiner, whose job was to review inventors’ applications for patents, was paid $25,500 in fiscal 2014 for 730 hours he did not work. But they said the actual number is almost certainly higher. They acknowledged that they gave the employee “the benefit of the doubt…and likely gave him credit for many hours that he did not work.”
The examiner’s supervisor works from home more than 30 hours a week. He told investigators that “it’s hard to tell whether someone has got a time [and attendance] issue” since many patent examiners have flexible work schedules that allow them to work early mornings, late nights, and on weekends.
The boss said he stopped by the examiner’s office on occasion and nothing seemed to be amiss.
“Well, I — there would be a light on,” the supervisor told investigators. “He’s got an office mate. Sometimes she’d be in there. Sometimes I’d go; he’d be in there. Sometimes he wouldn’t be in there.”
In a startling example of a culture that’s maddening to many inside and outside government, the examiner’s time and attendance abuse went unnoticed even after his supervisors had issued him nine oral and written warnings for poor performance since 2012.
“Despite numerous red flags and the [patent office’s] internal controls, the agency did not review [the examiner’s] time and attendance records to determine if he was claiming time for work he did not perform,” the 27-page investigation by Acting Inspector General said.
The patent office had received numerous complaints from inventors and their attorneys that the examiner was not responsive to their e-mails and phone calls. And the examiner was under scrutiny for an offense known as “mortgaging,” in which employees get credit for work before they actually submit it for review.
The employee, a GS-11 making more than $70,000, quit two hours before he was scheduled to meet with the inspector general’s office, the report said. The union representing patent examiners told him that if he resigned, his personnel record would stay clean, not showing that he was under investigation for falsifying hours.
The allegations surfaced on the heels of a Washington Post report last August on the patent office’s award-winning telework program. The Post wrote that an internal investigation prompted by multiple whistleblower complaints found evidence that few cheaters were disciplined for fraud, and a culture where union rules allowed supervisors limited oversight over their employees.
But when it came time for the patent office to turn over the findings of its review to the inspector general, the most damaging revelations had disappeared.
Since then, patent office officials say they’ve made efforts to address abuse, including mandatory training classes on time and attendance, a pilot program to prevent work production abuses earlier and new access for managers to computer records that could prove fraud.
“Although the vast majority of the [patent office’s] almost 13,000 hard-working and highly-skilled professionals perform their jobs with integrity and dedication, the agency nonetheless takes very seriously even one incidence of time and attendance abuse,” agency spokesman Todd Elmer said in a statement.
The patent office is “confident that the extensive array of additional controls, policies, procedures, and training initiatives that it has implemented… have enhanced the agency’s ability to detect such abuse more quickly and correct it more effectively,” Elmer wrote. Officials said they are pursuing legal options for recovering the money the examiner stole.
An independent review last month by the National Academy of Public Administration, done in response to the Post report, praised the agency’s telework program as a model in the federal government that’s good for morale and luring top talent.
But Smith’s office was skeptical that patent officials have adequate controls to monitor fraud, and urged the agency to examine “whether its current policies are hindering its efforts to pursue cases of abuse.”
“The evidence regarding [the examiner’s] actions raise concerns about whether the agency’s internal controls to prevent such misconduct are adequate and function properly,” investigators wrote. “While this report presents a case study of only one individual’s time and attendance abuse… it illustrates the difficulties in preventing and detecting such activity in [the patent office’s]
geographically dispersed workforce.”
The report noted that telework programs, while great for morale and productivity in bad weather, “also carry risks for abuse.”
Investigators compared the hours the examiner said he worked with his turnstile records, virtual private network access records and laptop records.
But it took the anonymous letter from the whistleblower letter for patent office officials to check if the examiner was working.