House committees to probe patent office telework at hearing next week

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Editor’s note: This article was updated to include a response from the Commerce Department Office of Inspector General. 

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s once-celebrated telework program faces scrutiny from two House committees next week.

The House Judiciary and Oversight & Government Reform committees plan to hold a joint hearing Tuesday to examine allegations that some patent examiners lied about their hours — and allegations that top officials looked the other way. The committees also plan to probe how the agency addressed the allegations.

“The benefits of eliminating commutes and offering employees flexible hours are obvious, but there are serious concerns that the Federal government is not able to oversee gross abuses by employees looking to game the system,” Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said in a statement released Monday. “This hearing will examine problems in the Patent and Trademark Office’s telework program and what it means for the future of telework initiatives in other agencies.”

This summer, the Washington Post reported that a preliminary investigation into the acclaimed program detected widespread fraud in the telework initiative and “completely ineffective” oversight. However, the newspaper said the final report, which was half the size of the earlier version, moderated its position, finding that managers reported “inconsistent” opinions on the system.

At the time, Chief Communications Officer Todd Elmer told the newspaper the earlier report was a “rough draft for discussion purposes.”

In the wake of the media coverage, Issa announced in August his committee would launch an investigation into the alleged abuses. Issa’s counterpart on the Judiciary Committee, Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., noted in the release about the Tuesday hearing that the patent office’s telework program “had been presented as a new model for federal workforce management but it has unfortunately become a source of concern and controversy.” Indeed, until the report came out, the patent office had hailed its program as a way to keep costs in check.

The hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, 1:30 p.m. in Rayburn 2151. Witnesses are to be announced.

The news of the hearing comes days after the USPTO union told its members that the Commerce Department’s Office of the Inspector General also was deploying investigators and auditors to probe the program. In an email to FedScoop, Robert Budens, the president of the Patent Office Professional Association, said he got the information from sources inside and out of the agency.

However, Clark Reid, Commerce Department OIG spokesman, said the inspector general’s office had not placed auditors and investigators at USPTO to investigate the telework program, as Budens alleged.

“The Office of Inspector General receives funding to do oversight of USPTO and we recently moved into new permanent office space there,” he wrote in an email. “The space can accommodate a 15-person audit staff who produce information for financial statements, quality assurance audits and reports on time and material labor hours and modernization efforts among others. There are time and attendance issues the OIG is following but we do not have a 15-member investigative task force doing so.”

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Bob Goodlatte, Darrell Issa, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)
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