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Member Bills Municipality for Work Not Done by Member’s Firm

Situation

Newspaper clippings forwarded to the Committee on Professional Conduct (cpc) reported that an asce member, while serving as the president of a consulting engineering firm, was billing a municipality for design work that he claimed was performed by his firm but in fact was not.

Upon investigation, the cpc learned that the municipality had assigned three separate engineering design jobs to the member's consulting firm. Instead of performing the assignments as contracted, the member and his firm had knowingly had the actual design of the jobs performed by employees of the municipality. The member then affixed his engineering registration seal to the drawings executed by the municipal employees and submitted requests for payment. The municipality issued checks as payment and mailed them to the firm.

The member was indicted in U.S. district court on charges of mail fraud, conspiracy to commit mail fraud, and conspiracy to defraud the United States. The consulting engineering firm and another officer of the firm (not an asce member) also were charged in the indictment. In a plea bargain struck after the member's indictment, the member's firm pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and paid a fine of $10,000. The member was not brought to trial.

Question

Did the member violate asce's Code of Ethics by billing the municipality for work that had not been performed by his consulting firm?

The alleged ethics violation occurred during a period when the Code of Ethics was undergoing revision. Article 9 of the code, in effect through December 1976, read as follows: "It shall be considered unprofessional and inconsistent with the honorable and dignified conduct and contrary to the public interest for any member of the American Society of Civil Engineers ... [to] act in any manner derogatory to the honor, integrity, or dignity of the engineering profession."

This provision was replaced in January 1977 by canon 6, which read as follows: "Engineers shall act in such a manner as to uphold and enhance the honor, integrity, and dignity of the engineering profession." The guidelines to practice further stated that, under that canon, "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."

The current version of the Code of Ethics incorporates much of the language of this earlier revision. As amended this past July, canon 6 reads as follows: "Engineers shall act in such a manner as to uphold and enhance the honor, integrity, and dignity of the engineering profession and shall act with zero tolerance for bribery, fraud, and corruption." Category (a) of the guidelines to practice for canon 6 reads as follows: "Engineers shall not knowingly engage in business or professional practices of a fraudulent, dishonest, or unethical nature." Category (c) of the guidelines for this canon has this to say: "Engineers shall act with zero tolerance for bribery, fraud, and corruption in all engineering or construction activities in which they are engaged."

Decision

The asce member met with two representatives of the cpc in an informal session. The member stated that at the time the invoices were submitted he was not aware that the design work had been performed by municipal employees rather than by his own staff. He acknowledged that the engineering registration seal on the drawings was his but claimed that he had reviewed and checked the engineering documents before affixing his seal.

The cpc voted unanimously to present the case to the Board of Direction at a full hearing and to charge the member with violation of article 9 of the Code of Ethics as in effect through 1976 and with violation of canon 6 of the Code of Ethics as adopted in 1977.

The board reviewed the evidence from the cpc report and the civil trial transcripts and found that the member had indeed violated the Code of Ethics. Its members voted to suspend the person's membership in the Society for five years and to publish an account of its action in Civil Engineering without citing the member by name.

Members who have an ethics question or 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. Please note that individual facts and circumstances vary from case to case and that the general summary information contained in these case studies is not to be construed as a precedent binding upon the Society. 

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