The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) within the U.S. Department of Commerce traces its origins back to Article I, Section 8, Clause 8, of the Constitution, to "promote the progress of science and the useful arts by securing for limited times to inventors the exclusive right to their respective discoveries." According to USPTO, “Under this system of protection, American industry has flourished… and employment opportunities [have been] created for millions of Americans.”

But apparently not for the nearly 12,000 USPTO employees according to a new investigation (see The Washington Times coverage here). 

According to The Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG).  In spite of serious backlogs the OIG reports it received complaints that paralegals at the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) were being paid for not working and logging it as “Other Time.” Many of those paralegals also received performance bonuses of up to $3,500 between fiscal years 2010 and 2013. Managers ignored the problem for years because they were waiting for more judges to be hired to handle the mounting caseloads, or they were afraid of backlash from the paralegals’ labor union.

All told the waste from salaries and bonuses for no work totaled slightly more than $5 million. But the worst part, according to the OIG:

Although the Other Time problem was widely known throughout the PTAB organization, no one seemed to take ownership of the issue. In the worst cases, paralegals seemed content to have extensive idle time while collecting full salaries and benefits, and PTAB management seemed to sit on their hands…(p. 3).

So what were these engines of industry doing on the taxpayers’ time and dime? Shopping online, surfing the web, and even doing laundry and washing dishes—from the comfort of their homes.  Senior managers interviewed as part of the investigation admitted the situation was so bad they would not have been surprised if paralegals were out on the golf course or playing poker (p. 33) instead of working for their salaries and “performance” bonuses.

Thankfully, a handful of USPTO employees were busy blowing the whistle.

But let’s not confuse the typical government agency response of shuffling managers around and tinkering with the org chart with actual accountability. Managers should be fired along with the employees who did nothing to earn their pay. Onerous union rules that interfere with firing non-working members should be eliminated. And, the millions of dollars squandered over years should be refunded to hard-working taxpayers who were struggling every day to make ends meet and pay the taxes that funded such malfeasance.