- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 10, 2014

A U.S. Patent and Trademark Office commissioner ran afoul of several ethics laws by pressuring officials into hiring the unqualified live-in boyfriend of an immediate relative, a Commerce Department investigation revealed Thursday.

The department’s Office of Inspector General initially did not release the name or title of the official in the 40-page report, but identified the executive as Deborah Cohn, the commissioner for trademarks, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request Thursday.

The Inspector General’s report said the investigation had also uncovered broader concerns about the Patent Office’s hiring practices.

“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,” Inspector General Todd Zinser said in a statement.

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

Ms. Cohn pushed to hire a relative’s live-in boyfriend even after subordinates had concluded that he wasn’t as qualified as other dozens of other applicants for the job of an examining attorney.

She could not be immediately reached Thursday evening.

The investigation focused on hiring practices inside the Patent Office’s Trademark Organization, which has about 670 employees and is responsible for nearly 200,000 trademarks.

More than 700 candidates applied for the job at issue, and the boyfriend didn’t even qualify to get past the first round of screening, which winnowed the list down to about 250 candidates, the inspector general said.

But Ms. Cohn helped the applicant through to another round of screening, where he finished 75th out of 76 candidates in an internal ranking, according to the report. The applicant landed the job anyway.

“Manager 1 believed that he ‘had nothing to lose’ by hiring the Applicant and was aware that the Applicant knew someone ‘high up’ at the USPTO,” the report said.

Reached before The Washington Times had obtained an unredacted copy of the investigative report, Todd Elmer, chief communications officer for the Patent Office, said in a statement Thursday that officials “appreciate the seriousness” of the inspector general’s report.

He said officials are studying the report and determining “next steps.”

“In the meantime, the agency remains laser-focused on continuing to ensure an impartial, fair and transparent hiring process, which is audited annually by the Office of Personnel Management and the Department of Commerce,” Mr. Elmer said.

“The most recent audit concluded those practices were conducted efficiently, consistently, and in accordance with applicable laws, regulations, merit systems principles, and veterans preference requirements,” he said.

• Jim McElhatton can be reached at jmcelhatton@washingtontimes.com.

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