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Member Pays Public Official in Exchange for Service Contracts

Situation

An ASCE section officer forwards newspaper articles to the Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC) concerning the trial of a city mayor on charges of bribery. The articles describe the testimony at trial of an ASCE member who, in exchange for a grant of immunity from prosecution, provided details of payments he had made to the mayor in exchange for professional service contracts.

The ASCE member, a partner of a small engineering firm, testified that he had been approached by a representative of the mayor about a request for proposals on a substantial design contract. The mayor’s representative told the member that the mayor was willing to award the member’s firm the contract in exchange for a small payment to the mayor and his representative. The member made a cash payment to the mayor’s representative using funds from his personal bank account, and soon afterward his firm received the contract. The member admitted that he and his partners had made a handful of other payments to the mayor’s representative, each involving cash payments from their personal accounts, and that his firm had subsequently been awarded other engineering service contracts.

Question

Did the member’s actions in making payments to the mayor in exchange for professional service contracts violate ASCE’s Code of Ethics?

Discussion

On the basis of its initial review of the newspaper articles, the CPC believed that the member’s actions may have violated canon 5 of the code, which reads as follows: “Engineers shall build their professional reputation on the merit of their services and shall not compete unfairly with others.” Paragraph (a) in the guidelines to practice for this canon adds the following: “Engineers shall not give, solicit, or receive, either directly or indirectly, any political contribution, gratuity, or unlawful consideration in order to secure work, exclusive of securing salaried positions through employment agencies.”

The committee was also of the opinion that the member’s activities violated canon 6, which at the time of this case read as follows: “Engineers shall act in such a manner as to uphold and enhance the honor, integrity, and dignity of the engineering profession.”

When contacted by the CPC, the member denied having done anything of an unethical nature and claimed that, in fact, he had been a victim of extortion. He said that his firm had recently suffered a financial setback, that the mayor and his representative were aware of his company’s struggles, and that they had taken advantage of his straitened circumstances to force him to agree to the secret payments. He further contended that he had done only what was necessary to keep his firm in business and that his actions were no different from those of countless other engineers and firms that buy tickets for events or make campaign donations to support local politicians. Finally, he claimed that his cooperation with county prosecutors and his testimony on their behalf should weigh against any finding of an ethics violation.

After reviewing the trial transcripts and speaking with county prosecutors, the CPC was not convinced by the member’s claim that he had been an innocent victim of the mayor’s activities. It found that the member had violated canons 5 and 6 of the Code of Ethics and recommended to the Board of Direction that the member be expelled from the Society. The member waived his right to present a defense to the Board of Direction, and after reviewing the committee’s report the board voted to expel the member and to publish an account of the action without the member’s name.

In July 2006 the board approved an amendment to canon 6 to explicitly address the issue of bribery in engineering and construction activities. The new canon and the accompanying guidelines to practice refer to ASCE’s policy of “zero tolerance for bribery, fraud, and corruption.” Even more recently, ASCE’s Committee on Global Principles for Professional Conduct, in a collaborative effort involving educators, engineering professionals, and communicators around the world, helped to develop a film that explores the ethical dilemmas confronting those working in engineering and construction. Entitled Ethicana, the film was shown in November at ASCE’s annual conference (see ASCE News, December 2008, page 12). For more information about the film and related initiatives, visit Ethics Resources.

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. 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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