You are not logged in. Login

March 2012

Exercise Care in Making Political Contributions

Situation

In the early 1970s, a nonprofit public advocacy group publishes a report on public procurement practices by architecture and engineering (A/E) firms in a populous East Coast state describing what it terms an “unprecedented series of ethical and criminal violations” by members of the state’s A/E community in connection with the procurement of nonbid public contracts.

One chapter of the report is devoted to donations by engineers to political campaigns at all levels of government. Among the activities described are those of a social club known as the Executive Club. Organized by a political affiliate of the state governor and billed as a method for private citizens “to exchange ideas with state officials on improving state government,” the report alleges that the club charged a hefty annual membership fee for individuals to attend dinners and other events with state officials—fees that were then funneled into campaign committees for the governor and others of his political party. The report states that of the 150 individuals paying dues to this club, nearly one-fifth were professional engineers.

The report also notes that the flow of contributions from the A/E community was not without its returns. Many Executive Club members were principals of engineering firms that had received significant amounts of work from the state during the governor’s term of office. The report lists nearly a dozen engineering firm principals whose contributions to a gubernatorial election campaign coincided with a stream of lucrative contracts from the state. One engineering firm alone, which made headlines while under investigation for fraudulently claiming the owner’s campaign contributions as a business expense, had received nearly $2.3 million in fees on state contracts.

At the local level, the report claims that more than half of the donations made during one county’s election were from individuals who stood to benefit from the award of municipal contracts. Elsewhere, principals of a prominent engineering firm had established a pattern of donating to political campaigns in each of several towns in which the firm sought public work, often including support of opposing candidates for the same office.

Nearly 20 of the individuals identified in the advocacy group’s report are members of ASCE, and copies of the report are forwarded by section officers to ASCE’s Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC).Exercise Care in Making Political Contributions

Question

Did the members’ actions in making campaign contributions to public officials while benefiting from the award of public contracts violate the ASCE Code of Ethics?

Discussion

At the time of this report, article 9 of the ASCE Code of Ethics read: “It shall be considered unprofessional...for any member of the American Society of Civil Engineers to exert undue influence or to offer, solicit or accept compensation for the purpose of affecting negotiations for an engineering engagement.” Guideline 1 under that article added that members “shall not make political contributions for the purpose of influencing the selection of engineers on future engagements.”

When contacted by the CPC about the report, each of the named individuals flatly denied any improprieties in their solicitation of professional work. Many claimed that their donations were a reflection of their “civic duty” to play a role in the election process, and that they neither sought nor expected any quid pro quo from their contributions.

While some of the report’s allegations were backed by criminal investigations of the parties named, in most cases the report simply identified contributions made and contracts received by engineers in the state—offering little support for a finding that the contributions were intended “to exert undue influence” on contract awards. The CPC voted to dismiss most of its individual investigations for lack of evidence, and it turned its attention to what the committee felt was a larger issue—the lack of ethical guidance with respect to civic participation by engineering professionals.

The CPC drafted a guidelines document on political contributions and submitted it to ASCE’s Board of Direction for formal approval. This document was approved by the board in April 1971 and reads as follows:

  1. 1. Every engineer has the same rights as other citizens to participate in the political process, to contribute his [or her] time and money to political campaigns, [and] to attempt to influence legislation, executive decisions, and appointments. However, offering to pay, paying or accepting either directly or indirectly, any gift, bribe, or other consideration to influence the award of professional work, shall be considered unethical conduct.
  2. 2. Every engineer making a political contribution should do so publicly in his own name, and as an individual citizen.
  3. 3. Every engineer has the right to refuse to contribute to any organization, political campaign, or candidate for public office.
  4. 4. Every engineer has the duty to hold public officials accountable for their actions, particularly on those matters in which the engineer has specialized professional competence.
  5. An engineer who makes a direct or indirect political contribution in any form under circumstances that are related to his selection for professional work shall be (a) subject to disciplinary action by the Society, and if appropriate, (b) reported to the public authorities.

Following adoption of these guidelines, the board established the Task Committee on Professional Civil Involvement, which folded these guiding principles into an action plan for addressing concerns about political contributions, kickbacks, and other abuses of the relationship between private engineers and public officials. The task committee’s recommendations included heightened attention to enforcement of ASCE’s Code of Ethics, support for regulatory limits on political contributions, and a renewed focus on prompting adoption by state licensing boards of the National Council of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors’ Model Licensing Laws.

While much attention has been given since the 1970s to the issue of regulating political activities, the ethical dilemma of political contributions by engineers seeking public work is still very much present today. The debate pits an engineer’s constitutional right to express political views and seek to influence elections, versus the engineer’s professional obligation to hold the public trust paramount over his/her private financial benefit.

As stated in ASCE’s Policy Statement 139, ASCE “strongly supports the involvement of civil engineers...in the legislative and regulatory decisionmaking processes at the local, state, and national levels”—and part of that involvement includes engineers seeking opportunities, on an individual basis, to play a role in the political arena. However, ASCE cautions that engineers must recognize the importance of compliance with their legal and ethical obligations in playing such a role, and must remember that their actions should “uphold and enhance the honor, integrity, and dignity of the engineering profession.”

Today, ASCE’s guidance on political contributions is captured in guideline c under Fundamental Canon 4, which states that engineers “shall not solicit or accept gratuities, directly or indirectly, from contractors, their agents, or other parties dealing with their clients or employers in connection with work for which they are responsible,” and guideline a under Canon 5, which provides that “engineers shall not give, solicit, or receive either directly or indirectly, any political contribution, gratuity, or unlawful consideration in order to secure work.” These guidelines, along with legal requirements imposed by federal and state election commissions and by state licensing boards, should serve as the basis on which any member of ASCE makes decisions with regard to participation in political activity.

Members who have an ethics question or would like to file a complaint with the Committee on Professional Conduct may call ASCE’s hotline at (703) 295-6061 or (800) 548-ASCE (2723), extension 6061. The attorneys staffing this line can provide advice on how to handle an ethics issue or file a complaint.

A Question of Ethics Home  | Browse by Canon | Browse by topic | Browse by year