Staff at the European Patent Office (EPO) have asked its administrative council to adopt new guidelines to protect them from the organization's rampaging president.
The open letter [PDF] urges the council – which meets this week in Munich – to adopt the same rules for disciplinary proceedings and internal investigations that are being developed at another scandal-hit international organization, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).
The letter comes as EPO president Benoit Battistelli continues an extraordinary campaign of intimidation of union leaders at the organization that has led to repeated strikes at the EPO and a determined effort to push the president out at the administrative council's previous meeting in July.
Since that failed attempt to boot Battistelli out, he has continued efforts to eject a number of union officials who resisted wide-ranging reform efforts, despite having been formally rebuked by the council and instructed to stop with his investigations.
A number of union officials have been suspended on questionable charges and have been under constant pressure to quit the organization, including the threat of withdrawals of their pensions. The suspensions follow an extraordinary campaign of intimidation through a special investigation unit set up by Battistelli, which included tapping people's phones and sending investigators to their homes, as well as planting highly damaging allegations about specific individuals in the press.
Battistelli's efforts to rid himself of anyone who opposes his reform proposals have been stymied by the organization's structures, so the president has made repeated efforts to rewrite EPO rules to give himself increasing amounts of power over decisions – leading us to dub him "King Battistelli."
In one of the most extraordinary examples, Battistelli formally threatened the EPO's supposedly independent Boards of Appeal when it met to consider the case of a patent judge he had suspended. He denied that the board had the right to carry out an investigation, refused to allow any EPO staff to act as witnesses, and said that any decision by the appeal board would be "unlawful."
The board responded with a blistering report in which it said Battistelli had "undermined the fundamental principle of judicial independence," and noted that "all present members of the Enlarged Board find themselves threatened with disciplinary measures if they continue with these proceedings in the presence of the public, and seek to determine the facts of this case."
That same fear of retribution has been repeatedly reported by EPO staff. A recent independent investigator into the situation felt the need to comment on the atmosphere: "We note that, when we seek information from EPO employees, they are reluctant to communicate, in fear of retribution by internal investigative units. It seems that the people at the EPO are afraid of their own management."
The intense dislike of Battistelli resulted in a zero per cent confidence rating of the president in a staff survey, and even led to someone cutting the brakes on his bicycle.
And yet, for largely political reasons, the Administrative Council – which consists of representatives from all the European countries that make up the EPO – refuses to fire the president.
As a result, staff are appealing to the council's willingness to introduce more abstract changes to the organization by asking for the new guidelines to be introduced in order to provide them with some degree of protection against a president and management run wild.
The WIPO guidelines [PDF] themselves have resulted from a similar abuse of power from that organization's director, general Francis Gurry.
An official investigation into Gurry found grounds to suspect him of "serious misconduct" when he overruled an IT security procurement process in favor of a company run by a friend of his. Gurry was also suspected to be behind the secret taking of DNA samples from senior staff in an effort to identify the writers of anonymous letters of complaint sent to WIPO.
Despite the allegations and extremely strong criticism leveled at WIPO by the US Congress, in which it called WIPO "the FIFA of UN agencies," Gurry is still in his position and most recently attempted to get rid of its staff council in order to exert greater personal power over the organization.
The WIPO guidelines are designed to protect staff in future from a management team with its own agenda. EPO's staff hope that by pushing for them to be adopted by the EPO too, it will both protect them and flag the continued abuses of Battistelli and his team. ®