Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include Sen. Patrick Leahy’s statement.
Patent office Deputy Director Michelle Lee faced many of the same questions when she returned Wednesday to the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify once again on her nomination to lead the agency.
Echoing her remarks from the December hearing, Lee reassured lawmakers that the agency was taking steps to address recent reports of time and attendance fraud — particularly within its once-lauded telework program.
“We’ve taken up a whole bunch of initiatives since some of those matters came to our attention,” Lee said.
Last summer, the Commerce Department’s inspector general released a report that found some of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s teleworking paralegals were doing laundry and surfing the Web during work hours because they didn’t receive enough work. Then, news broke that the patent office had failed to report evidence of abuse in an initial probe of its telework program.
But Lee said since the reports came to light, USPTO has been training examiners on time and attendance rules, and it had established cross-agency programs to prevent abuse and to intervening early when problems arise. She added that the office had tapped the National Academy of Public Administration to evaluate the telework program. They are slated to release their findings in May.
“We’ve done a lot,” she said. “And I look forward to doing much more if I’m confirmed.”
Lee also discussed the agency’s efforts to improve patent quality, cut the patent application backlog and address abusive intellectual property litigation, or so-called “patent trolls.” Currently, the patent office faces a more than 600,000-application backlog. Lee also emphasized the need to pass legislation to combat trolls and the importance of working with different members of the intellectual property community to improve the system.
“We need to put the interests of the overall patent system ahead of personal interests,” she told new committee member David Perdue, R-Georgia.
In all, Lee enjoyed a warm reception from lawmakers, similar to when she last appeared before the committee.
Just like last time, Lee shared the witness panel with Daniel Henry Marti, who was nominated to serve as intellectual property enforcement coordinator in the Executive Office of the President. While lawmakers focused most of their attention on Lee, Marti was able to touch on cybersecurity and the need to protect trade secrets from bad actors.
“I’m concerned that the pace of economic espionage and trade secret theft — through cyber hacking, for example — seems to be accelerating,” he said.
Meanwhile, the committee’s former chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., issued a statement needled the new leadership for not taking swifter action on the nominees. The patent office, he noted, has been without a director for two years.
“In my 40 years in the Senate, I cannot remember a single time that a second hearing was held by this Committee on uncontroversial nominees,” Leahy said .
Lee and Marti’s nominations must clear the committee before moving to the full Senate.