Issa demands action on Patent Office nepotism case

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The House’s top investigator demanded Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker take “immediate action” to discipline a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office commissioner accused of nepotism, saying in a letter late last week that the agency’s professional reputation was at stake.

Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said the commissioner, identified in an inspector general’s report as Deborah Cohn, showed behavior “appalling and unbefitting a federal official” when she used her influence to find a job for a relative’s live-in boyfriend, and then threatened to sue for invasion of privacy when the government was about to make her case public.

SEE ALSO: Patent official threatened to sue IG over damning report

“I request that you take immediate action on this employee to demonstrate accountability so that USPTO employees — and Congress — can maintain their confidence in agency leadership,” Mr. Issa wrote in a July 9 letter to Ms. Pritzker.

The department’s inspector general found Ms. Cohn, a patent commissioner, had the boyfriend hired despite his ranking 75th out of 76 candidates in one internal review, according to a report obtained by The Washington Times through the Freedom of Information Act.

Initially, the report was released in redacted form, which did not reveal Ms. Cohn’s identity and referred to her only as an unnamed high-ranking official. An open-records request by The Times forced release of a version that included her name.

Even as the inspector general’s report was pending release, Ms. Cohn was trying to stifle it, including raising the possibility of suing under the federal Privacy Act if the unredacted report was released.

An attorney for Ms. Cohn also told the inspector general that Ms. Cohn didn’t consent to public release of the report “in order to avoid any costly and unnecessary litigation,” according to Mr. Issa.

But Mr. Issa said the inspector general is allowed to release investigative reports publicly, especially those that involve misconduct by a high-level agency employee.

SEE ALSO: EXCLUSIVE: Head of trademark office accused of nepotism

There isn’t a consistent policy across the inspector general community about when and how to release such reports. Some watchdogs, such as the Air Force inspector general, disclose reports that name senior officials even if they’ve not been charged.

Mr. Issa said Ms. Cohn was “bullying” the government and said it showed deeper problems with her as a federal employee.

Cohn’s response to the IG demonstrates not only an unwillingness to accept responsibility for — and to correct — her poor judgment that gave rise to the IG’s investigation, but also a complete disregard for the authority of the IG,” Mr. Issa wrote.

The investigation began with a whistleblower complaint, Inspector General Todd Zinser said in a statement.

“Our investigation substantiated the whistleblower’s allegations that not only did the USPTO executive exert undue influence in the hiring process, but that the applicant was not among the most qualified candidates as determined by the USPTO hiring officials,” Mr. Zinser said in a statement.

“After the applicant was rejected, the executive intervened and created an additional position specifically for the applicant,” he said.

Patent Office officials have declined to comment on what, if any, discipline Ms. Cohn faces, nor would they make her available for an interview in recent days. Officials provided a response to the report when they were contacted about the redacted version before Ms. Cohn’s identity was made public.

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