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August 11 2014

Don’t Patent This Either

Patrice J. Lee

The little-known U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) is in the news again and it’s for nothing good.

Recently, we reported that paralegals working for the agency apparently not having enough work to do were using large swaths of idle time on the clock to surf the internet, read books, and do personal chores such as their laundry.

Now, through a separate investigation we’re learning about a host of time and attendance fraud cases with teleworkers (some of whom are paralegals) and the rushed and incomplete work they produced. Furthermore, supervisors either have been powerless to stand up to the unionized workers or leaders at the agency turned a blind eye to the abuses.

Thanks to multiple whistle blowers, the U.S. PTO began an internal investigation of its telework program and found egregious examples of time and attendance fraud. Of 8,300 patent examiners, apparently about half of them who work from home full time, repeatedly lied about the hours they were putting in, and many were receiving bonuses for work they didn’t do. Because of union-negotiated policies, managers have few tools to monitor their workers actual time and senior leaders have overlooked the problems creating a lax culture.

This is not a handful of cases but a systemic problem that has led to a backlog of more than 600,000 patent applications with an estimated five-year wait time. There goes innovation and efficiency in government for you.

And to make matters worse, the original findings of the investigation had been sanitized to remove the worst revelations (i.e., cover up the abuse).

The Washington Post reports:

Prompted by multiple whistleblower complaints, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office began an internal investigation two years ago of an award-winning program that’s been praised in and outside government: Employees are allowed to work from home.

What the inquiry uncovered was alarming.

Some of the 8,300 patent examiners, about half of whom work from home full time, repeatedly lied about the hours they were putting in, and many were receiving bonuses for work they didn’t do…

But when it came time last summer for the patent office to turn over the findings to its outside watchdog, the most damaging revelations had disappeared. The report sent to Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser concluded that it was impossible to know if the whistleblowers’ allegations of systemic abuses were true.

But these examples — and others cited in the internal report — did not appear in the document supplied to Zinser. That version found “no objective evidence of any systemic abuse of reporting procedures.”

The internal investigation also unearthed another widespread problem. More than 70 percent of the 80 managers interviewed also told investigators that a “significant” number of examiners did not work for long periods, then rushed to get their reviews done at the end of each quarter.

Supervisors told the review team that the practice “negatively affects” the quality of the work. “Our quality standards are low,” one supervisor told the investigators. “We are looking for work that meets minimal requirements.”

In short, the internal report concluded that “USPTO management demonstrated reluctance to take decisive action when the misconduct is egregious and the evidence is compelling.” Investigators recommended “unmitigated access” to records when abuse is suspected.

This should sicken the stomach of every American who watches her hard-earned taxpayer money disappear from each paycheck into the government’s blackhole.

This is like an onion we keep peeling back to reveal new layers of egregious misbehavior. That PTO workers are ripping us off by committing fraud is terrible, but then they are allowed to get away with it because their supervisors don’t have the equipment to track their actual hours. One shifty worker actually used a mouse-over program to make it appear that he was working. And when supervisors complained, the higher ups ignored or refused to take any action against fraud reports from supervisors. On top of all of that, officials tried to cover this up by complaining that most of the cases are inconclusive because they lack evidence. Well, duh!

The employment abuses at the PTO are outrageous. The President wants to model others after this one; he had better do his homework, check into these allegations, and figure out a way to bring these abuses to an end.

This is a reminder of why Americans mistrust government’s ability to be efficient and effective in its operation. This is yet another reason for us to turn to the private sector, where such abuses are largely promptly reported and weeded out so as not to create this kind of culture. Reputation, quality of product, and the bottom line are all motivating factors that keep businesses in line. Government workers seem only to be motivated by their own selfish excesses in this case and nothing is done to stop it.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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