The commissioner for patents at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office struck back against suggestions that recent misconduct allegations within the agency’s telework program pointed to a culture of fraud.
“The vast majority of the men and women working in the Patent and Trademark Office are honest, hard-working examiners that are in fact willing to spend more than what is required to do the job,” Commissioner Margaret Focarino said.
She made the remarks in the midst a fiery three-hourlong hearing Tuesday held by the House Judiciary and Oversight & Government Reform committees, during which lawmakers hammered the patent office about a report that found instances of fraud within a once-acclaimed teleworking program.
The Washington Post reported this summer that a preliminary investigation into the program found that some patent examiners lied about their hours while some top officials declined to take action in light of suspected abuse. But in a final report submitted to the OIG’s office, investigators softened their position.
Before the Post report, the patent office’s telework program was heralded as a model system.
Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., came down hard on the patent office. Brandishing his own intellectual property credentials — committee staff displayed a picture of his own patents on the television screens of the hearing room — the lawmaker said the problem hurts innovators.
“We pay for the applications. We pay the salaries for every employee at the PTO because in fact we pay all the costs of the PTO,” said Issa, who claimed he has held 37 patents. And yet, he said every day that a patent isn’t approved is a day investors can’t monetize their inventions.
While Focarino said “no program is perfect,” she said the teleworking program has been “critical” in improving the agency’s operations. She also said the abuse has been isolated and that the agency has taken steps to strengthen the program, including requiring the use of electronic collaboration tools for full-time teleworking and standardizing the process for accessing relevant electronic records.
About 5,000 of the office’s 8,000 examiners telework full time.
Several lawmakers made the link between the alleged telework abuse and the agency’s backlog of 600,000 patent applications. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat representing Silicon Valley, said she’s heard from many patent applicants unhappy with the delay time. But she voiced concerns about Inspector General Todd Zinser, saying he had “a very troubled relationship” with whistleblowers in the past.
“How can your office continue to function effectively when you have such a blemished history in your treatment of whistleblowers, and how can we trust that you’ve stopped what appears to be a 20-year pattern of retaliation against whistleblowers?” she asked.
However, Zinser defended his office’s treatment of whistleblowers: “I think our office has no problem receiving and investigating whistleblower complaints,” he said. “In fact, I think one of the problems that exists in the Department of Commerce is that the management of the Department of Commerce has not taken ownership of the problems that are reported over our hotline.”