House Republicans on Wednesday dressed down a top U.S. Patent and Trademark Office official and a union leader for what they called a weak response to reports of time and attendance fraud by patent examiners.
The rebukes, in response to an inspector-general investigation released this summer, may foreshadow things to come with President Donald Trump in the White House and Republicans controlling Congress.
Trump and conservatives on Capitol Hill have vowed to target the federal bureaucracy, holding civil servants accountable when they perform poorly or break the rules — behavior they say has been tolerated by the Obama administration across the government with few repercussions.
The patent office has struggled in recent years with reports that some of its employees are chronically gaming the system, a practice made easier by the large number who work from home with little oversight by managers.
The agency’s watchdog has found plenty of fodder. In 2014, the inspector general for the Commerce Department, the patent office’s parent, reported that paralegals at the small office that handles patent appeals were told by their supervisors to fudge their timecards because they had so little work to do.
Also that year, The Washington Post reported on the findings of an internal investigation by patent officials after whistleblowers complained that their colleagues and examiners they supervise repeatedly lied about their hours and got overtime pay and bonuses for work they didn’t do.
A 32-page internal report 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 findings, providing the inspector general’s office with an account half the length and with many potentially embarrassing findings removed.
Last year, investigators found that a single patent examiner racked up more than 18 weeks of pay for work he did not do, while his teleworking manager never noticed.
And a 15-month analysis, released in August by Deputy Inspector General David Smith, of thousands of patent examiners’ turnstile badge swipes, computer log-ins and remote computer connections 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 as much as $18.3 million, with employees who review patent applications billing the agency for almost 300,000 hours they never worked, investigators found. They said the full scale of the fraud is probably double what the numbers show, because they gave employees the benefit of the doubt: If they badged in once at the agency’s Alexandria headquarters or logged in at home, they got credit for a day of work.
“What is most troubling is that the numbers . . . are a conservative estimate,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the House Oversight Committee’s subcommittee on government operations, said at a hearing Wednesday.
Meadows called the August report “alarming” and told a top patent official that “internal controls are lacking” to monitor fraud. “I want an accountable workforce going forward,” he said.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), the subcommittee’s top Democrat, said the inspector general had not made the case that fraud was widespread, noting the bogus hours accounted for only 1.6 percent of the hours investigators tracked.
The hearing focused on 415 employees who investigators said lied about working at least one day every other week — and 56 employees whose time could not be accounted for an average of three days a pay period.
Russell Slifer, the patent office’s deputy director, told lawmakers that “any abuse of time and attendance . . . is unacceptable.” He said the agency has taken steps to give managers more tools to monitor when their employees are working.
But Slifer defended the agency’s roughly 8,000 patent examiners, saying the vast majority are honest, hard workers, many of whom do not have enough time to review each application on their docket. He also said that many examiners do their research offline, so if they are not logged onto their computers for a day or even two, that does not mean they are playing hooky.
Meadows was furious. “You’ve got over 8,000 employees and 400 or so who are taking advantage of the system,” he told Slifer. “Are you suggesting it’s okay to not log into your computer for two days? Do you think you can actually do your work for 48 hours without logging in?”
“Yes,” Slifer answered.
“Is that the best practice?” Meadows asked. Slifer acknowledged that it was not.
Patent officials have not been able to identify or interview or pursue disciplinary action against the 415 employees they think gamed the system; privacy laws prevent them from matching computer data gathered in the inspector general’s investigation with personnel records.
Slifer said that 30 patent examiners the agency was investigating separately for time and attendance fraud have been disciplined or fired. He did not say over what period or how serious the fraud was.
After the hearing, patent office spokesman Patrick Ross said in an email that officials would not provide further information. Cause of Action Institute, a watchdog group, said it filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the patent office in November seeking detailed records on disciplinary action.
Republicans also criticized the union representing patent examiners, which has an unusually close relationship with management. Pamela Schwartz, president of the Patent Office Professional Association, was first grilled by Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) on her full-time work for the union while on the federal payroll — a legal, widespread practice known as official time. Republicans have vowed to weaken or eliminate it.
Meadows then called Schwartz to account for her advice to the patent examiner known as “Examiner A,” who bilked the government out of tens of thousands of dollars. The union had urged him to resign, which he did, before patent officials could fire him.
Meadows asked the union leader: “So you advised the employee to resign” rather than face the consequences of his actions?
“We advised the employee their record would have less on it if they resigned,” Schwartz said.
Meadows asked her for a commitment that she would negotiate new language in the union contract that would allow managers to see their employees’ work schedules and make it easier to fire employees who commit fraud.
“If they falsify records, are you willing to support their termination?” the congressman asked. Schwartz hedged and would not commit.
“I would need clarification on that,” she said. “It’s possible you could falsify some records and the appropriate level of discipline would not be termination.”