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Student Takes ASCE Chapter Funds for Personal Use

Situation

A university senior and student member of ASCE is elected president of his school’s ASCE chapter. In connection with his role as a chapter officer, he is given check-writing authority and a debit card for the student chapter’s bank account.

Several months later, in preparing an annual report for the section leadership, members of the student chapter board discover a number of charges on the chapter’s bank statements for which there are no receipts or documentation. All told, the charges—one large cash withdrawal and several smaller debit charges made over a four-week period—amount to just under $2,000.

The chapter’s vice president brings the bank statements to the president’s attention, who admits to making the suspicious charges himself. He acknowledges that the expenses were unrelated to his official duties but contends that he had made the charges at a time of financial hardship and had intended to reimburse the group for his personal use of chapter funds later.

After meeting with the student chapter vice president and the chapter’s faculty adviser, the student resigns from his position as president and signs an agreement to make restitution for the missing funds. The student chapter board reports the events to its section leaders, who in turn notify ASCE’s Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC).

Question

Was the student member’s use of student chapter funds for his personal benefit a violation of ASCE's Code of Ethics?

Decision

Canon 6 of the Code of Ethics reads as follows: “Engineers shall act in such a manner as to uphold and enhance the honor, integrity, and dignity of the engineering profession.” At the time of this investigation, category (a) in the guidelines to practice for canon 6 had 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.”

Although the student had apologized for his actions and paid back the missing funds, the CPC could not overlook the fact that his conduct involved not only the commission of a criminal act but also the abuse of a leadership position within his professional society. Nevertheless, the cpc also gave weight to the views of the university student conduct board, which felt that the student’s resignation and reimbursement constituted a sufficient penalty. That board had declined to take further action.

Although the CPC was reluctant to take actions that might serve as a permanent detriment to the young engineer’s career, its members believed it was of cardinal importance to demonstrate the serious nature of the offense. The cpc found that the student had violated canon 6 of the Code of Ethics, and it voted to recommend a two-year suspension and to publish the circumstances of his suspension without naming him.

As is true in all cases where the CPC finds that an ethical violation has occurred, the student had the right to present his case in a hearing before the Executive Committee or to sign a consent agreement waiving his right to a hearing in exchange for a sentence not to exceed the CPC’s recommended action. Fearing that the Executive Committee might move to impose a harsher penalty, the student signed the consent agreement.

The Executive Committee approved the CPC’s two-year suspension, and notice of the case was published without giving the member’s name in an issue of ASCE News.

This case was considered before the most recent amendments to the Code of Ethics. In July 2006 the Board of Direction approved new guidelines that more clearly mark the misuse of funds as an ethical violation. This provision, category (b) in the guideline to practice for canon 6, reads as follows: “Engineers shall be scrupulously honest in their control and spending of monies, and promote effective use of resources through open, honest, and impartial service with fidelity to the public, employers, associates, and clients.”

Just as they are obliged to faithfully serve the public and their employers and clients, engineers must also be scrupulously honest in their control of Society funds and must work to serve their Society and their profession with openness, honesty, and fidelity. ASCE has benefited over the years from the conscientious volunteer services of thousands of engineers, including the students and other members who brought this particular infraction to light and worked diligently to ensure its immediate correction.

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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