Allegations of time and attendance fraud at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office are once again in the spotlight.
The Commerce Department Office of Inspector General released a summary of a new report that found one patent examiner committed at least 730 hours of time and attendance abuse in fiscal year 2014. The IG recommended the agency attempt to recover $25,500 it paid to the employee, known only as Examiner A, for that time — and investigate whether it should recover funds from 2015.
“The evidence regarding Examiner A’s actions raise concerns about whether the agency’s internal controls to prevent such misconduct are adequate and function properly,” the report summary said. The office did not release the full report to the public.
A year ago, the agency’s time and attendance polices came under scrutiny after that Washington Post reported that some accounts of abuse were removed from a report on the once-lauded telework program sent to the IG’s office. Before that, a separate report found that paralegals in one of USPTO’s components had been exercising and doing laundry while they were supposed to be working from home.
The controversy spurred calls for reform from lawmakers and led the office to make internal changes to improve the function of the program. The case in the IG’s latest report was referenced in IG Todd Zinser’s written testimony during a joint hearing on the telework program held by the House Judiciary and Oversight & Government Reform committees. Though, the patent office said, the worker in question was not a telework employee.
According to the IG report, the situation came to light after an anonymous complaint about Examiner A appeared in the offices of two supervisory patent examiners. Examiner A “never shows up to work” and “seems to get away with anything,” the complaint said.
The employee appeared to perform adequately the first four year he worked at the agency, but in 2012 “his performance declined dramatically,” the report said. The report found that the worker received the lowest possible performance rating for three consecutive years, and he received nine oral and written warnings. The IG also received several complaints from patent applicants who said the examiner wasn’t responding to their emails or calls.
For the report, investigators compared the hours the examiner said he worked in fiscal year 2014 with controlled-access turnstile records, secured virtual private network access records and laptop activity records.
“Despite numerous red flags and the USPTO’s internal controls, the agency did not review Examiner A’s time and attendance records to determine if he was claiming time for work he did not perform,” the summary said.
The examiner resigned from his job immediately prior to a scheduled interview with IG investigators.
The IG calls on the patent office to review its policies to see whether adequate controls are in place to monitor time and attendance fraud, and examine whether its current policies are hindering its efforts to pursue cases of abuse.
In a written statement, patent office Chief Communications Officer Todd Elmer said the agency appreciated the IG’s work and emphasized that the vast majority of the agency’s 13,000 workers perform their duties “with integrity and dedication.”
“[T]he agency nonetheless takes very seriously even one [emphasis his] incidence of time and attendance abuse, such as by this particular employee, who is no longer with the agency,” he said.
Elmer highlighted some of the initiatives the agency has undertaken in the last year to address abuse, including mandatory training classes on time and attendance, and a pilot program to prevent work production abuses earlier.