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. And when supervisors had 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.
Oversight of the telework program – and of examiners based at the Alexandria headquarters – was “completely ineffective,” investigators concluded.
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.
“What we hoped to see was an unfiltered response,” Zinser said.“That’s not what this was. It’s a lot less sensational. The true extent of the problem was not being conveyed to us.”