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By Tara Hoke

At ASCE's annual leadership conferences, which were held earlier this year, national, section, and branch leaders, along 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. As was the case last year, the 2007 conferences included sessions on engineering ethics that drew on material provided by the National Institute of Engineering Ethics. This month's column discusses one of two case studies presented at the ethics sessions. The case studies were prepared by William D. Lawson, Ph.D., P.E., and Brian Brenner, Ph.D., P.E., and are based on an opinion issued by the National Society of Professional Engineers' Board of Ethical Review.


Jack Florin is the chief geotechnical engineer for Welk Consultants, of Fargo, North Dakota, a geotechnical consulting firm that maintains several drilling rigs and has a laboratory, several geologists, and an experienced drilling crew. Drilling and sampling operations are overseen by Ernest Downholt, the firm's drilling manager.

As the chief geotechnical engineer, Florin has written professional engineering reports providing design parameters for foundations of structures ranging from small commercial buildings to large grain elevators. In preparing these reports, he relies on data collected by the firm's drilling crew and geologists. Florin occasionally verifies the data by making personal visits to project sites while the drillers and geologists are at work. Lately, however, his workload has kept him in the office writing reports and overseeing the work of junior engineers.

Realizing he has not been in the field much, Florin arranges to meet Downholt at the site of a proposed three-story office building complex. While touring the site, Florin does not see anyone taking borings. Downholt tells him that the borings were taken the day before, but Florin sees no track marks or signs of disturbance in the snow.

Florin now has misgivings regarding the accuracy of the borings data being used in the building design. If the members of the boring crew never came to this site, where did they go? Did they take borings at the wrong site?

The accuracy of the subsurface exploration logs and data is of the utmost importance to Florin's design recommendations. It is now Friday morning, and the report setting forth his foundation design recommendations is due in the client's office by Thursday of the following week, six days hence.


What course of action should Florin take given his concerns over the accuracy of the borings data?


Session participants were asked to consider the following options:

  • Soil conditions in the area do not vary appreciably, so boring logs from nearby sites should be adequate for design purposes. Nevertheless, Florin should talk to Downholt to ensure that this lapse does not recur.
  • Florin should call the geologist and demand proof that the boring logs submitted are based on soil samples from the site in question. If proof is not provided, Florin should fire the entire crew.
  • Florin should tell the client what he has discovered (or thinks he has discovered) and ask for additional time to complete the report.
  • Florin should hire another crew to perform drilling at the correct site as soon as possible and should tell the client that the initial data were inconclusive and that further sampling is needed for a reliable report.
  • Florin should require the geologist and drillers to go back to the site, work over the weekend, and furnish him with samples by Monday morning.
  • After obtaining correct information for the site from the geologist and drillers, Florin should have Downholt fire them because they cannot be trusted on future assignments. Furthermore, Downholt should be told that since oversight of field crews is his responsibility, he will be fired if an incident of this type occurs again.

Category (b) in the guidelines to practice for canon 3 of ASCE's Code of Ethics reads as follows: "Engineers shall be objective and truthful in professional reports, statements, or testimony. They shall include all relevant and pertinent information in such reports, statements, or testimony." If Florin believes that the soil borings data supplied by his firm's drilling team have been fabricated, he cannot ethically use the data in his report. His response to this situation should also be guided by his duty to have no tolerance for fraud (canon 6) and to serve his client faithfully (canon 4).

The two most popular answers among session participants were options 2 and 5. While attendees felt the most crucial task was obtaining accurate data for the foundation design report as swiftly as possible, they also wanted to determine whether the situation involved a mistake or deliberate fraud. The point was made that deliberate fraud could very well call into question the work done on previous projects. In such a case, Florin and his firm might be further obliged to disclose this fact to previous clients and attempt to make restitution.

Tara Hoke is ASCE’s general counsel and a contributing editor to Civil Engineering.

© ASCE, ASCE News, April, 2007