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Congress fumes as idle federal workers went shopping, sent on private errands

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The House's top investigator pressed the Commerce Department on Wednesday to take action on a telework scandal at the U.S. Patent and Trade Organization, where dozens of paralegals got paid while they went shopping, watched television and caught up on chores — all with the knowledge of supervisors.

The time and attendance abuses went on for years, with the employees saying they were not assigned enough work, so their bosses let them use the time for personal business, according to a Commerce Department inspector general report last month.

In a letter to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, also raised questions about a report in The Washington Post that officials had removed some of the most damaging telework-fraud cases from an internal report.

Mr. Issa said the abuses look bad for an agency facing a backlog of more than 600,000 patent applications.

"Despite patent examiners generally receiving a salary at the top of the federal pay scale — some making $148,000 a year — it appears the telework program is not serving its intended purpose to produce more efficiency," Mr. Issa wrote.

Mr. Issa requested internal emails and other documents on the telework scandal, as well as a briefing for his staff.

The Commerce inspector general investigation found the PTO wasted more than $5 million as underworked paralegals and supervisors concealed nonwork activities under an "other time" pay code.

One official told investigators it was an open secret that "other time" was code for "I don't have to work, but I'm going to get paid."

Patent officials say they have already begun to address the staffing and workplace problems revealed in the audit.

"Many of the OIG's recommendations for improvements ... are already underway or have been implemented," Todd Elmer, the agency's communication director, said after the release of the inspector general's report.

But details of the IG's report proved highly embarrassing to the agency.

The probe found that paralegals at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's appeals board were paid more than $5 million for their time even though there was so little work for them to do that supervisors didn't care how they used it.

"I almost don't blame [paralegals] for watching TV because, I mean, you´re sitting around for 800 hours," one chief judge told the investigators, who found that supervisors not only tolerated the problem, but in one instance admonished an employee who complained about the lack of work.

The idle paralegals nonetheless managed to take home more than a half-million dollars in performance bonuses from 2009 to 2013, before the agency hired enough judges to increase the workload, according to the report. The "other time" designation was widely considered a farce within the agency.

Investigators said the practice continued until last year when agency officials got word that the inspector general's office was looking into complaints from whistle-blowers.

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