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Employer Reimburses Employee for Political Campaign Contributions

Situation

The chief executive officer and two other officers of a large  engineering firm are indicted on charges of violating federal campaign laws.  The indictment describes how, at the direction of the chief executive officer, employees of the firm were encouraged to make sizable donations to the campaigns of a handful of state and national political candidates and were later illegally reimbursed for the contributions from the firm’s business accounts. The indictment alleges that the executives adopted this scheme in order to increase the firm’s chances of receiving government contracts from the elected officials whose campaigns received the funding.

At trial, an ASCE member and former employee of the firm describes his participation in this illegal “straw man” scheme. The member explains that, on his employer’s recommendation, he made a few relatively small campaign contributions and later received reimbursement for the donations from the firm’s business accounts. He claims that at the time of his involvement he believed his activities to be nothing more than “friendly assistance” to his employer, who was active in political circles and wished to support the candidacies of his friends in those circles. The member also says that he was unaware of the illegality of this practice of donation and reimbursement and believed it to be a common practice among engineering firms in the state. He says that he was certainly unaware of any intent on his employer’s part to receive government contracts in exchange for the donations and would not have agreed to make the donations if he had been.

Transcripts of the trial testimony are forwarded to ASCE’s Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC), which opens an investigation into this ASCE member and other member engineers implicated in the scheme.

Question

Did the ASCE member’s actions in sending campaign contributions at his employer’s request and accepting reimbursement from his firm violate ASCE’s Code of Ethics?

Decision

On the basis of the trial testimony and supporting documentation, the members of the CPC saw a possible violation of canons 5 and 6 of the Code of Ethics. Canon 5 states that “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 has this to say: “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.”

At the time of this investigation, canon 6 of the code read as follows: “Engineers shall act in such a manner as to uphold and enhance the honor, integrity, and dignity of the engineering profession.” Paragraph (a) in the guidelines to practice for canon 6 added that “engineers shall not knowingly act in a manner [that] 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.”

While the CPC accepted the member’s claim that he did not know his actions were illegal, its members nevertheless felt that, by effectively assisting his employer in making campaign donations in excess of the amounts the employer was able to contribute directly, the member should have known he was engaging in fraudulent or dishonest conduct. Moreover, while they accepted the member’s claim that he himself did not participate with the intent of securing contracts from the elected officials, they felt he could not have been unaware that the donations might give the firm an unfair advantage over firms that did not donate in excess of spending limits.

The CPC found that the member’s activities in voluntarily participating in this illegal donation scheme had violated canons 5 and 6 of the code, and it recommended to the Executive Committee that the member be suspended from the Society for one year and that notice of the action appear in an ASCE publication without the member’s name.

In a final hearing before the Executive Committee, the ASCE member appeared in person to explain his actions and to request leniency. Since leaving his former firm, the member had established his own practice and had made it a formal policy that no political contributions would be made using corporate funds. Furthermore, the member observed that he had become an active supporter of procurement reform in his state and of engineering ethics training within ASCE.

The Executive Committee considered the ASCE member’s explanation of his actions, including the relatively small dollar amount of his donations. It also noted that, while he should not have received compensation for his contributions, he had not personally contributed funds to a political campaign in excess of legal contribution limits. In view of the ASCE member’s obvious remorse for his conduct, his subsequent corrective actions, and the assistance he had given to federal prosecutors during their investigation of his former employer, the Executive Committee was persuaded by the member’s request for leniency and voted to dismiss all charges.


 
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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