WASHINGTON (AP) — Thousands of federal patent workers are allowed to work from home with little supervision and face almost no discipline even if they lie about the hours they put in, an internal watchdog told Congress Tuesday as lawmakers examine a telework program acclaimed as a model for the government.
Senior managers at the Patent and Trademark Office are blocked from ensuring that employees actually work the hours claimed, making it appear that time-card abuse is "tolerated" at the agency's highest levels, the Commerce Department's inspector general said.
While he has seen no evidence that time-card abuse is "systemic" at the patent office, "it would be extremely easy for large numbers of workers" to submit fraudulent time cards if they wanted to do so, Inspector General Todd Zinser told a joint hearing Tuesday of the House Oversight and Judiciary committees.
Lawmakers are examining problems at the Patent and Trademark Office, which allows about half of the agency's 8,000 patent examiners to work from home full-time. Another third work from home part-time. The arrangement reduces traffic and saves at least $34 million a year in rent and other costs for office space, while increasing worker productivity and retention, the agency said.
But some lawmakers said the telework program is ripe for abuse. A report last year found that some employees repeatedly lied about the hours they were putting in, and many were receiving bonuses for work they didn't do. When supervisors found evidence of fraud and asked to have the employee's computer records pulled, they were rebuffed by top agency officials, ensuring that few cheaters were disciplined, investigators found.
Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., has urged federal prosecutors to open a criminal investigation into possible fraudulent record-keeping at the agency.
"To say I am extremely disappointed that (the patent office) failed to manage its telework program would be an understatement," said Wolf, a longtime advocate of teleworking whose suburban Washington district includes thousands of government workers.
If the patent office fails to take action against employees who abused the system, "other telework programs across the federal government could very well be in jeopardy," Wolf said.
But instead of correcting problems, senior managers at the patent office have tried to minimize them, Wolf said, adding that anyone found to have submitted fraudulent time-cards should be fired. "In all honesty, they should already have been dismissed," he said.
Patent Commissioner Margaret Focarino said her agency takes time-card abuse seriously and has moved to strengthen oversight and management of the telework program.
The agency now requires the use of electronic "collaboration tools" to improve tracking of teleworking examiners and has conducted extensive training sessions to make sure employees and supervisors follow proper procedures, she said.
The agency also is "clarifying what steps supervisors should take" if they suspect misconduct and is "ensuring that we proceed appropriately and consistently in those situations," she said.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the Oversight panel, said it appeared that patent office managers did not have the tools needed to evaluate their employees. Issa, an inventor who holds more than three dozen patents, said poor work habits among patent examiners could slow approvals of important innovations that could spark economic growth.
"The success of our economy and entrepreneurs demands action," he said.
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