Telework on Trial? House Committees to Probe Patent Office Telework Fraud

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The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the House Judiciary Committee team up for a joint hearing next week.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s scandal-beleaguered telework program is about to go under the congressional microscope.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the House Judiciary Committee will team up for a joint hearing next week to examine “systemic abuses and mismanagement” of agency’s telework program, according to a committee release.

Potential abuse of the patent office’s telework program -- once hailed as a model program -- first came to light in late July thanks to a Commerce Department inspector general report.

Because of inconsistent workflow, a group of patent examiners working from home had so little actual work to do, they watched TV, surfed the Internet and caught up on household chores all while billing the agency using a special code, according to the July IG report.

Outgoing Virginia Republican congressman Frank Wolf -- a self-described “champion” of federal telework programs -- even went so far as to request the Justice Department open a criminal investigation, arguing the patent office employees defrauded the government and management looked the other way.

Telework advocates have been quick to point out the violations are generally management breakdowns and not inherent to telework itself.

But four years after Congress expanded federal flexible workplace policies with the Telework Enhancement Act, congressional Republicans clearly want to take a broader look at telework arrangements governmentwide.

“The benefits of eliminating commutes and offering employees flexible hours are obvious, but there are serious concerns that the federal government is not able to oversee gross abuses by employees looking to game the system,” House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said in a statement.

The hearing will examine what the patent office violations mean “for the future of telework initiatives in other agencies,” Issa said.

The chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., suggested the revelations about the patent office’s telework program call into question its reputation “as a new model for federal workforce management.”

The hearing is scheduled for Nov. 18 at 1:30 p.m. There’s no word on witnesses yet.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama recently tapped Michelle Lee, currently USPTO's deputy director, to formally run the agency -- a move that requires Senate confirmation.

The number of federal employees who telework continues to inch up.

All told, a quarter of the federal workforce reported teleworking at least some of the time, according to the 2014 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. About 10 percent of employees reported teleworking one to two days a week. Another 4 percent said they worked from home three or more days a week, according to the survey.

(Image via kazoka/Shutterstock.com)

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