IG report: USPTO executive violated federal laws to hire family friend

FILE - This Feb. 25, 2011 file photo shows Tthe U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Va. The Supreme Court on Thursday tossed out an Australian company's patent for business software in a decision that clarifies standards for awarding patents, but not as much as some firms had hoped. In a case closely watched by the industry, justices ruled unanimously that the government should not have issued a patent to Alice Corp. in the 1990s because the company simply took an abstract idea that has been around for years and programmed it to run through a computer. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) AP

A high-ranking official in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is accused of using their position to improperly hire the live-in boyfriend of an immediate family member, according to a redacted report released by the Office of the Inspector General.

An investigation by the inspector general was initiated when an anonymous whistleblower sent in a complaint in April 2013 claiming that the executive used their influence to hire a relative's fiancé, who "was not among the most qualified candidates."

After not being selected for an initial interview, the USPTO executive told staff to include the family friend's name on the interview list. According to the report, "E-mails indicate that [the executive] was invested in the Applicant's employment status, and stated to OIG that he was "concerned for him" when he was looking for work." The executive created a new position for the friend when they did not receive a job offer.

Additional evidence indicates that the executive also encouraged other individuals looking at jobs with the USPTO to use the executive's name when asking for help from the executive's employees.

The Office of the Inspector General concluded that this executive violated several ethical standards and federal laws, one which prohibits federal officials from using their public office for an individual's private gain as well as giving preferential treatment to any applicant for employment.

While the OIG states this indicated poor judgment, they also said that this type of behavior "appears to be commonplace in the Trademark organization." The investigation discovered that several USPTO employees, including senior managers, seemed to not fully understand federal hiring regulations.

The OIG made recommendations to create guidelines in the USPTO hiring process, with fear that without change, the current practices will continue to show favoritism and unfair competition for USPTO jobs and further violations of federal law. These include comprehensive training of federal hiring rules for USPTO employees, as well as staff excusing themselves from hiring matters involving family or friends.

"The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office recognizes the importance of the work of the U.S. Department of Commerce's Office of Inspector General (OIG), and appreciates the seriousness of this report," said a USPTO spokesperson. "USPTO officials are now reviewing OIG's findings and conclusions very carefully and determining the appropriate next steps."

After their most recent audit, the USPTO said that those practices were conducted efficiently and in accordance with applicable laws.

Reporting by Mary O'Connell of the CBS News investigative unit

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