In this self-proclaimed "most transparent administration in history," the public continues to rely on agency inspectors general to get at the truth. The latest revelation comes from Inspector General Todd Zinser of the Commerce Department on the incredibly lax "telework" requirements of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
His report found that paralegals employed at $60,000 to $80,000 a year who were allowed to "telework" from home had little official work to do and frequently billed for hours spent on housework, exercise, Internet surfing and watching television.
Some of those employees even earned bonuses for "outstanding" work. Compared to what?
Maybe the more highly paid patent examiners who were telecommuting as well.
As The Washington Post reported, "The inquiry of patent examiners showed almost nonexistent oversight of thousands of highly paid employees who have relatively autonomous work schedules and work rules. It showed that few cheaters who lied about the hours they were putting in were disciplined."
For example, some examiners reportedly crowded their work into a few weeks at the end of each quarter, apparently recognizing that their supervisors were ill-equipped to monitor the quality of "end-loaded" work. Some of the telecommuters for the Alexandria, Va.-based patent office live as far away as California.
The report covered telecommuting by patent employees from 2009 through 2013. The IG found that after hiring the paralegals to process appeals for adjudication, the patent office failed to hire a sufficient number of administrative law judges to decide the appeals.
The IG also discovered that the patent office already knew about the problems from an internal investigation, but withheld the most troubling findings from the inspector general. "The true extent of the problem was not being conveyed to us," Mr. Zinser told the Post.
The Commerce Department issued a stern warning to employees about the legal requirement to maintain accountability in reporting time worked.
But Michelle Lee, deputy director of the patent office, took a softer approach. She left a morale-boosting voice message in a blanket email to agency employees following the reports of telework abuse.
"I want you all to know how very proud I am of the work you do every single day," Ms. Lee said, as quoted by the Post.
"Like any great program or organization, there's always room to improve. . . . I want to assure you that we will continue to work together to maintain the right balance of incentives and tools that have helped make our state-of-the-art telework program the gold standard."
Based on the IG's report, the patent office's telework system might legitimately be considered the "gold standard" for bureaucratic gold-bricking, but not much else.
These malingering employees don't deserve a gold star. They deserve to be fired. And the program deserves its pending investigation by the House Oversight Committee.
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