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Firm Solicits Help from Local Engineer Under False Promise of Work 

ASCE conducted leadership conferences in each of its four zones earlier this year. 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

Barbara Beamly is a senior engineer for a well-known and well-respected structural engineering firm in Dallas. Her firm has provided structural engineering services as a subconsultant to project design companies on large public works projects. She has learned that a large public works project requiring a considerable amount of structural engineering design work is being planned nearby in Fort Worth.

I.B. Shaker is the vice president of development of Moover Design Consultants, Ltd., a national public works project design firm headquartered in New York City. Moover plans to submit a proposal to serve as the design consultant for the public works project, and Shaker asks Beamly's firm to serve exclusively on Moover's project team. After Beamly confers with the firm's associates, her firm decides to join the Moover team as the structural engineering subconsultant for the project. Shaker assures Beamly that while Moover has an in-house structural engineering department, that department's work will be limited to troubleshooting.

As the selection process for the project designer proceeds, Beamly is asked to attend the interview with the selection committee and to address the committee as a member of the Moover team. She is pleased that she knows the members of the selection committee through her work on prior projects, and her presentation goes very well.

Several days later, Beamly receives word from the agency funding the project that the Moover team has been selected as the design consultant. As a result, she submits a scope of work and a $450,000 estimated fee to Moover for the structural engineering portion of the work.

Beamly is told that she will be contacted about getting started once the final contract between Moover and the funding agency has been negotiated, but two months elapse and she hears nothing. Beamly later learns that Moover has started structural design and is informed by Moover that it will call her if it needs any additional assistance during the life of the design contract.

The following week Beamly meets an acquaintance who works for Moover. He tells her that although it is not widely known, it is company policy to bring local engineers onto its teams when the company is competing for work outside of New York, the intent being to demonstrate local expertise and a commitment to the area. However, once the project has been awarded to Moover, the work is done in-house, and the subconsultants listed as part of the team are either ignored or given only a very small amount of work. That was the plan from the start with this project.

Question

Did Shaker violate asce's Code of Ethics when he hired Beamly, knowing that the work would ultimately be done in-house?

Decision

Yes. The guidelines to practice in category (b) of Canon 5 read as follows: "Engineers should negotiate contracts for professional services fairly and on the basis of demonstrated competence and qualification for the type of professional service required." Further, the guidelines to practice in category (a) of Canon 6 have this to say: "Engineers shall not knowingly act in a manner which will be derogatory to the honor, integrity, or dignity of the engineering profession or knowingly engage in business or professional practices of a fraudulent, dishonest, or unethical nature."

In addition to discussing the Code of Ethics, the zone leadership conference participants considered the importance of negotiating and signing a contract—and negotiating the fee—before providing services. It will be much more difficult for Beamly to enforce a verbal contract than to enforce a written one, and the circumstances are complicated by the failure to negotiate a fee in advance. The conference participants were given the following options and asked to choose the most appropriate:

  1. Send an invoice to Shaker for the time spent helping Moover prepare its bid for the project.
  2. Call some of the people on the selection committee and ask their opinion about what the agency thinks she should do.
  3. Meet with the funding agency's project manager and ask if there is any reasonable course of action.
  4. Send a certified letter to Shaker stating that Beamly's firm is terminating its relationship with Moover because the current work arrangement is not what was agreed to and send a copy of that letter to the funding agency.
  5. Request that her firm's corporate attorney file a legal complaint and notice of intention to sue Moover for breach of verbal contract, defamation of professional reputation, loss of anticipated profit, and violation of the promise of local design participation implied in the submission to the selection committee.
  6. Determine if any of the structural engineers working on the project are registered professional engineers in Texas. If not, contact the state board and file a complaint over the fact that the structural engineering design work is neither being performed nor reviewed by a Texas-registered professional engineer.

The vast majority of participants chose option 4—terminating the firm's relationship with Moover and informing the funding agency. Second place was a tie between option 5—taking legal action against Moover—and option 6—filing a complaint with the state licensing board. In the group discussion, many participants also advocated a combination of these solutions.

Additional details of this case were published in the April 2002 issue of asce's Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice, along with the niee's online voting results for the options noted above. The niee Web site (http://www.niee.org/cases/) contains a case-of-the-month column enabling viewers to vote online on an ethics question. William Lawson, Ph.D., p.e., and Brian Brenner, Ph.D., p.e., prepared this case study and dramatization.

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.  

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