Members talk charges for patent office abuses

House lawmakers on Tuesday scolded the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) for reports of employees taking advantage of its telework program.

During a joint hearing by the Oversight and Judiciary committees, members used words like "outrage," "fraud" and "scams" to describe reports that some patent examiners lied about the amount of time they worked and accusations that the office attempted to "sanitize" an internal review of the allegations. 

Others floated the idea of prosecuting those employees who abused the program. 

"Are we pursuing an investigation in any way, shape or form to prosecute these people if the evidence is there?" asked Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), a former prosecutor.

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Margaret Focarino, commissioner for patents, said one employee has been removed, two were suspended and another received a disciplinary letter. She added 13 of 15 initial reform recommendations have already been implemented.

Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser did not rule out pursuing charges, but he said it would be tough because many managers were complicit in the abuse.

A number of lawmakers concluded the problem extended past the telework program, in which half of all full-time patent examiners work from home. Instead, they blamed poor incentives and performance measures at the patent office.

"These abuses weren't just perpetrated by telework employees, but that other employees who report every day to the PTO headquarters building in Alexandria have also been gaming time and attendance through the system," Rep. Frank WolfFrank WolfTrump, global religious freedom needs US ambassador to lead Bottom Line 10 most expensive House races MORE (R-Va.) said.

The committee honed in two specific abuses. "End-loading" involves employees waiting until the end of a quarter to finish large amounts of work, which can sometimes lead to vague patent rejections.

The other abuse is described as "mortgaging," in which examiners turn in incomplete work to get credit, before completing it later on.

The office last year initially sent the inspector general a 16-page internal report that found the PTO could not substantiate many of the whistleblower allegations about employees lying about the amount of time spent working.

But a Washington Post report later uncovered an unofficial report, nearly twice as long, that confirmed most of the allegations and made a series of 15 recommendations for improvement.

The longer report found that supervisors were not able to ensure employees actually worked the hours they claimed. And the inspector general found that the office's policies gave the impression that the abuses were tolerated.

Focarino, the commissioner for patents, noted that the office has briefed committee staff a number of times since the Post broke the story this summer. It has also partnered with a nonprofit group chartered by Congress to independently evaluate the program as well.

Focarino described the abuse of the program as "isolated" and said the office has addressed it.

She said Tuesday the patent office has made a number of reforms. Those include mandating use of “electronic collaboration tools” that makes sure employees are responsive to managers. Another allows managers to easily access computer records.

Last month, Michelle Lee, who was nominated to lead the office, touted the “award-winning" program as a part of retaining talent and saving money, allowing it to double the number of patent examiners in a decade.

She said "no program is perfect" but asserted the telework program has helped to cut down the patent backlog. The patent application backlog remains above 600,000, but that number decreased by about 150,000 since 2009, despite an increased demand.

"Recent revelations make it clear it should not have been touted," Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said, pointing out he is a holder of multiple patents from his work before entering Congress.