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Mercury News: Patent office scandal again shakes confidence

San Jose Mercury News

First Published Aug 16 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Aug 16 2014 01:01 am

The U.S. Patent Office is the lifeblood of Silicon Valley’s technology industry. Opening a branch in San Jose City Hall early in 2015 will be a huge boost to innovation here and an attraction for startups. It’s expected to speed up application reviews that have taken years — in part because too few examiners were on the job.

Or so we thought.

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Now comes word of another possible reason: Evidence that examiners working exclusively from home have not been doing the work they were paid to do.

This has to be resolved fast. And not fast in Patent Office time, fast in real time. Federal authorities need to determine how much of the 600,000-application backlog and five-year waits might be due to patent examiners goofing off instead of reviewing applications.

An internal investigation prompted by whistle-blowers appears to be validating the claim. About half the office’s 8,300 examiners are part of an award-winning program that lets them work at home full-time. Investigators say some of them lied about the hours they worked, even receiving bonuses for work they didn’t do.

It gets worse. Because of bad management practices, the department doesn’t know the extent of the malingering: When supervisors asked to have the employees’ computer records pulled, top agency officials refused.

Anyone detect the aroma of a cover-up here? Thought so. But again, that is not all.

Damning information was detailed in an internal report prepared by Patent Office investigators following a two-year probe. But when the report was sent to the inspector general at the Commerce Department, which oversees the office, it had been cut in half and sanitized. The Washington Post obtained copies of both documents. Officials now say the first report was merely a draft, but fortunately, Commerce isn’t buying it.

Both reports made it clear that managers were stymied by policies negotiated with the patent examiners’ union.

The original investigation detailed a culture of fraud routinely overlooked by senior leaders and frustrating to front-line managers. It’s got to be fixed, and the amount of money squandered or stolen has to be quantified.

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None of this changes the need for a patent office here in the valley. Part of the benefit is applicants’ ability to pop in and resolve questions on short notice instead of having to troop to Washington. Speeding up adjudications will help not just California but the national economy.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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