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Engineers Fail To Disclose Private Interest in Report to Public Agency  

asce recently conducted leadership conferences in each of its four zones. Leaders at the national, section, and branch level, together with younger member and student leaders, came together to exchange ideas, network, gain a better understanding of Society activities, and consider ways of leading their groups more effectively. This year's conferences included two sessions on ethics, both using materials provided by the National Institute for Engineering Ethics (niee). This month's column reviews and analyzes one of three case studies presented at the conferences. In preparing the case summary, the niee drew on an opinion from the National Society of Professional Engineers' Board of Ethical Review.  

Situation

The case involves a licensed engineer and project manager named Daulton Squyres. Squyres's employer, ClearWater Developers, has challenged him to plat, design, and construct a high-profile, 90-lot subdivision in Murray Township on an accelerated time schedule. Squyres retains local engineers Elias Auften and Shellie Moore to design and supervise the construction of the subdivision. Auften and Moore are in a joint venture in an engineering and construction management practice that provides civil and municipal engineering and construction management services to clients in a number of townships in the state.

During a design review, township officials determine that a second road will be needed to access the subdivision. This second road exits into Walbert Township, which is adjacent to Murray Township. As engineers for ClearWater, Auften and Moore will be responsible for locating and designing the second road. However, their joint venture happens to also serve as Walbert Township's municipal engineer. Because Auften and Moore are working on the subdivision in Murray Township while serving as engineer for Walbert Township, a potential conflict of interest exists.

In conformity with ethical engineering practice, the joint venture of Auften and Moore discloses to Walbert Township its relationship with ClearWater Developers regarding the subdivision for Murray Township. For its part, Walbert Township does not object to Auften and Moore making a recommendation regarding the feasibility of constructing the proposed second road. Thereafter, as municipal engineer for Walbert Township, Auften and Moore's joint venture recommends that Walbert Township approve the construction of the proposed road.

The second road requires the acquisition of new property in Walbert Township, and Squyres authorizes negotiations for purchasing the property. During this process, Squyres notices that there is a large parcel of land owned by Auften and Moore's joint venture in the area of the surveyor's plat demarcating the parcels that ClearWater will have to purchase. At no time do Auften and Moore ever mention to Squyres or to Walbert Township that they own this property.

By recommending construction of the second road into Walbert Township next to their land, Auften and Moore stand to benefit financially, since the new road will dramatically increase the value of their property. Squyres is concerned about the implications of this conflict of interest for his project. He considers a number of options to address the problem, including suppressing the information to avoid delaying the project.

Question

Is Auften and Moore's failure to disclose their ownership of the property a violation of asce's Code of Ethics?

Decision

Yes. Canon 4 of the code reads as follows: "Engineers shall act in professional matters for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees, and shall avoid conflicts of interest." Further, the guidelines to practice in category (a) of canon 4 have this to say: "Engineers shall avoid all known or potential conflicts of interest with their employers or clients and shall promptly inform their employers or clients of any business association, interests, or circumstances which could influence their judgment or the quality of their services."

Clearly, owning property affected by a recommendation for construction made as part of work for a client is a conflict of interest and must be disclosed. However, the more difficult question concerns Squyres's responsibility after learning of Auften and Moore's apparent property ownership.

At the zone leadership conferences, several options for Squyres were presented for consideration by the attendees:

  1. Engage an independent engineer to give a second opinion because if the decision to build the road stands on technical merit there would be no ethical conflict.
  2. Talk to Auften and Moore to hear their side.
  3. Propose to Auften and Moore that they donate the money they stand to gain to civic and humanitarian organizations in the two townships.
  4. Tell the townships what he's learned and let them handle it.
  5. Seek independent advice from his professional society and his legal counsel.
  6. Report Auften and Moore to the state licensing board.

The majority of participants were split fairly evenly between options 2 and 5. According to asce's bylaws, members are duty bound to promptly report any observed violations of the Code of Ethics to the Committee on Professional Conduct (cpc) when those perceived as being guilty of ethical lapses are asce members. In this case, the two options favored by participants at the conferences provided a means whereby Squyres could verify his facts and responsibilities before taking action. Once he had done this, participants agreed that other options came into play, among them terminating the contract with Auften and Moore, reporting the matter to the townships, or reporting the matter to the cpc and the state licensing board.

The fruitful interchange of ideas at the leadership conference sessions devoted to the ethical aspects of engineering practice demonstrates the value and importance of discussing ethical issues with your friends and colleagues. Further details of this case will be published in the April issue of asce's Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice, along with the online voting results from the niee for the options noted above. The original case (97-4) and the actual findings of the National Society of Professional Engineers' Board of Ethical Review can be accessed online at http://www.niee.org/cases. William Lawson, Ph.D., p.e., and Brian Brenner, Ph.D., p.e., prepared the case study and dramatization.

Members who have an ethics question or who would like to file a complaint with the cpc 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.  

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