U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Director Michelle K. Lee told lawmakers Tuesday that she and her team “do not tolerate any kind of attendance abuse” and promised that employees who commit fraud are disciplined.
“It’s not fair to the American public,” Lee told members of the House Judiciary Committee in response to queries from Republicans about an inspector general investigation released in August.
“I want to be clear,” Lee said. “The USPTO takes any allegation of wrongdoing very seriously. Any hour claimed as worked that is not worked is unacceptable.”
A 15-month analysis by Deputy Inspector General David Smith’s office of thousands of patent examiners’ turnstile badge swipes, computer logins and remote computer connections from their homes to federal systems showed consistent discrepancies between the time employees reported working and the hours they actually put in.
This time and attendance abuse cost the government at least $18.3 million, as employees who review patent applications billed the agency for almost 300,000 hours they never worked, investigators found.
Smith’s office determined that the full scale of fraud — about 2 percent of the total hours worked by the examining corps — is likely double those numbers, because investigators analyzed the data conservatively to give employees the benefit of the doubt.
On Tuesday, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) chairman of Judiciary’s subcommittee on courts, intellectual property and the internet, said that “while a great many examiners work diligently to do their jobs,” time fraud is an offense to American inventors.
“How can we guarantee that some examiners aren’t just rubber-stamping ideas” from inventors, Issa asked Lee.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said he was “deeply troubled” by the inspector general’s report. “The amount of waste and man hours that could have been spent reducing [a backlog in patent applications] is astounding,” he said.
But Lee said another review, last year, of the agency’s management of its workforce by the National Academy of Public Administration found that time and attendance abuse “was not widespread.”
She said supervisors have adequate tools to monitor their employees, even if both parties work from home or one telecommutes and the other works from the patent office’s Alexandria headquarters.
Employees and managers have been “recently retrained” to use these tools, Lee said, describing instant messaging and software that tells supervisors the progress examiners are making in their reviews.
Lee said all examiners must provide their manager with their work schedules for the next day. But under the agency’s agreement with the union representing patent examiners, only those with performance problems must provide a schedule; others are required only to provide the hours they intend to work.
Asked whether any employees have been disciplined for time and attendance fraud, Lee told lawmakers that the agency has ordered counseling, sent letters of reprimand, terminated wrongdoers and collected money from them for hours they did not work.
Lee said her staff has ”already taken action” against “a number of employees” identified by the inspector general report, although the report did not single out specific examiners.
She declined to say how many employees have been disciplined and over what period. An agency spokesman told the Post last month that federal privacy rules prevented him from providing a specific number.
In an email to all patent and trademark office employees the day the inspector general report was released, Lee praised the workforce as “the best and brightest professionals who exemplify our culture of hard work, dedication, innovation, and results.”
She said in the email that the inspector general identified “a small percentage of time claimed that was not supported by the select data points they reviewed.”
Investigators found that 415 patent examiners accounted for 43 percent of the hours that were gamed. These examiners received above-average annual performance ratings and played hooky for at least one day every two-week pay period.
Lee told lawmakers that during the 15 months in 2014 and 2015 covered by the inspector general’s investigation, the backlog of patent applications sunk to 557,000 from 616,000.
“We delivering results to our stakeholders,” she said.