The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee announced Tuesday it has launched an investigation into alleged abuses of telework privileges at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
In a letter to Commerce Department Secretary Penny Pritzker, committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said the scandal, which was first reported by the Washington Post, comes at a bad time for USPTO.
“The Post’s report comes at a time when examiners are apparently falling behind on one of the core functions of the agency,” Issa wrote. “The USPTO reportedly has a backlog of patent applications of over 600,000 and an approximate wait time of more than five years. Despite patent examiners generally receiving salary at the top of the federal pay scale – some making $148,000 a year – it appears the telework program is not serving its intended purpose to produce more efficiency. The waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement described by the Post is unacceptable.”
Issa claims telework abuse and fraud has been a significant contributor to the massive backlog of patent applications and said such activity appears to be widespread. Last week, however, USPTO Deputy Director Michelle Lee reassured attendees at a Patent Public Advisory Committee meeting that the abuses were “isolated problems in our telework and timekeeping systems” and said “the evidence did not support a finding of widespread or systemic abuses.”
It’s not uncommon, though, for Issa’s committee to look into this kind of alleged fraud and waste.
“This Committee has historically examined instances of wasteful spending and mismanagement at federal agencies,” he wrote. “For example, during the Committee’s April 16, 2012, hearing on the 2010 General Services Administration conference in Las Vegas, Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle agreed that a number of egregious examples of waste occurred there — including the hiring of a clown, a $31,000 reception, and a team-building exercise that cost $75,000. Similar gaps in internal agency controls seem to exist at the USPTO.”
While USPTO hasn’t reportedly hired any clowns, the initial USPTO internal investigation did cite one patent examiner who claimed 265.5 hours of work for which there was no evidence and $12,533.02 in pay for those fraudulently claimed hours.
“The [assistant deputy commissioners] refused to allow the [technology center] to use the computer records as evidence; as such, the examiner was not charged with time fraud,” the report said.
Issa asked Pritzker to deliver to him not later than Sept. 2 all documents and communications related to internal reports and all documents and information given to the Commerce Office of the Inspector General related to the allegations in the report. Pritzker will also have to testify before the oversight committee on the matter.