Life after Charbonneau

The past few years have seen a crisis in the civil engineering profession in Quebec: Engineers and engineering firms in the province were caught up in the wider web of collusion and corruption involving municipal and provincial construction projects. While the engineering profession certainly didn’t shoulder all or even the majority of the blame, unraveling the systematic problems will likely not be completed for years to come.

This, in a nutshell, was the conclusion of the Charbonneau Commission in Quebec. Established by the Quebec government in 2011 to investigate systemic problems in awarding government civil construction contracts, its scope slowly grew into a rat’s nest as problematic practices were discovered even after the commission started its work. In total, the commission made 60 recommendations covering procurement, political influence, citizen participation and confidence in public officials.

As such, engineers should probably be asking themselves a similar question to the one the American Bar Association (ABA) addressed after the Watergate scandal in the mid-1970s: How could so many professionals (in that case, lawyers) systematically ignore their ethical obligations and the law? What had gone so wrong with the legal profession that led the president of the United States and his most senior advisors—all lawyers—to conspire to obstruct justice? The ABA’s answer was that it was likely the way ethics was framed to that point. Ethical rules put too little emphasis on obeying the law and respecting the courts and too much on the interests of clients and deference to other lawyers. Ever since, the ABA has been working on its model Code of Ethics to address what should have been obvious: Lawyers must respect the law.

Luckily, it appears the damage to the reputation of the engineering profession by the Charbonneau crisis was limited by both geography and the area of practice. However, it appears that, in a similar fashion, when confronted with novel applications of the engineering Code of Ethics, engineers from the most senior members of international engineering firms down to engineering interns failed to do the right thing. Those who did do the right thing soon found themselves on the outside looking in.

Among the issues the Charbonneau Commission determined to be widespread in the civil engineering sector, were:

  • Routine padding of per unit quantities in contracts to pay for unauthorized extras;
  • Hiring of former municipal politicians to do “business development”;
  • Financing and organizing of municipal political campaigns, then having the candidates they supported pick the committee members who made the decision to award municipal contracts;
  • Preparation of tenders with “true” quantities of unit items to preferred bidders and exaggerated quantities to other bidders, thus allowing preferred bidders to submit far lower bids based on the likely amounts;
  • Preparation of selection criteria for engineering services that were deliberately weighted to the engineering firm preparing the criteria, or to another preferred firm;
  • Urging of employees to contribute the maximum amount to municipal and provincial political candidates, then reimbursing them for the contribution to get around Quebec’s strict laws prohibiting corporate donations;
  • Working with contractors who were clearly attached to organized crime. This included efforts to muscle out competitors by making it clear that there would be consequences for trying to break into a restricted market (equipment sabotage was common and personal threats were not unknown);
  • Emphasis on tendering out every engineering contract instead of allowing for broader selection criteria—this practice was exacerbated by governments insisting on paying a “flat rate” instead of an hourly rate for things like general review;
  • Lack of government oversight due to attrition of both engineers and auditors in the public sector. This allowed engineers and contractors to routinely overcharge and to charge for work that wasn’t actually performed; and
  • An increased demand for political contributions, which put pressure on engineering and construction firms that were largely dependent on government contracts.

LESSONS LEARNED

One of the other key factors was the inability of Quebec’s engineering regulator, the Ordre des ingénieurs du Quebec (OIQ), to deal with the sheer volume of complaints. Prior to 2010, OIQ received a handful of corruption complaints a year. After that, they routinely received well over 100 per year, and many of those complaints related to actions that actually took place before 2010.

So what lessons can be learned from what happened in the civil engineering profession in Quebec? Certainly, if there is a similar situation in the future, there are a lot more safeguards in place. After a temporary period of guardianship, OIQ is demanding more of its members and is better prepared to handle complaints.

But a better question is how this sort of behaviour not only became commonplace, but normal—not merely widespread, but pervasive. The widespread corruption and collusion didn’t happen overnight—neither was the problem caused by newly minted professionals who didn’t know any better.

Some of the key issues contributing to the problem that came out of the Charbonneau inquiry were:

  1. Decision-making: Unlike Ontario, OIQ does not have a certificate of authorization requirement or any authority over engineering firms. In many cases, the decisions to engage in corrupt practices were made by non-engineers who recruited other non-engineers (politicians and contractors) into corrupt and collusive schemes;
  2. Selection processes: There was very little isolation between politicians and engineering firms. Politicians, not civil servants, were usually in charge of selection processes, and political interference in the selection process was common. Work was routinely given to political allies and denied to political rivals. Politicians became dependent on engineers for contributions, and engineers became dependent on politicians for work;
  3. Cost cutting: To save on personnel costs, professional engineers working for governments were routinely removed from the design process and were almost completely assigned to project management. This made governments more dependent on consultants and, at the same time, removed the expertise they needed to properly assess the proposals made by those consultants. Any savings from slimming staff were quickly gobbled up by the consultants; and
  4. Financing: Government payment and approval processes were glacial. This led to cash flow problems in both the engineering and construction sectors. Engineering and construction firms would routinely bill out in a timely manner, only to wait for months to be paid. In many cases these firms would have to turn to questionable sources of financing, including those with ties to criminal organizations who used this leverage to get a larger share of business.

But in the end, the commission noted that many of these practices were normalized within the profession. When called upon to give testimony, many engineers and contractors tried to pass off what they were doing as a good thing. A contractor who described himself as “small” despite doing more than $100 million in municipal business per year, said collusion was a matter of “survival” and “respect for competitors.” Firms that illegally participated in campaign financing and organization called the work “democratic participation.”

In the end, it begs the question: Are engineers trained to prepare themselves for the ethical challenges they are likely to face once they get into practice? While engineers know enough about ethics to pass an exam, ethics, like engineering, is in a constant state of flux. Our understanding of both engineering and ethics change as old problems are solved, improvements are found and new challenges arise. This can be seen in the development of Ontario’s definition of “professional misconduct.” Although it was a recent development based on an isolated discipline case—and the engineer was punished nonetheless—it was only within the last 20 years that “harassment” became part of the definition of professional misconduct in Ontario. One would hope that engineers wouldn’t engage in discreditable conduct merely because it isn’t specifically prohibited in s. 72(2) of the regulations. But if Charbonneau teaches us anything, it’s that people wanting to act in an unethical manner can be just as innovative as anyone else.

EMPHASIS ON ETHICS

This is particularly true of the various schemes to finance campaigns. As an enforcement officer, I have dealt with a few of the OIQ members who were caught up in those schemes. Rarely did they question the request to contribute to a campaign, nor did they find it strange when they received a bonus equal to their contribution. When confronted, they argued that although the scheme may have violated the spirit of the law, it didn’t precisely violate the letter of the law. In addition, they tended to see corruption only as a quid pro quo arrangement and felt that if the firm didn’t get an immediate benefit, there was no corruption involved. Lastly, they argued that, despite all of this, the conduct clearly wasn’t discreditable, disgraceful or unprofessional. OIQ disagreed and over 150 members caught up in such schemes reached a plea agreement.

Deciding how much emphasis universities and professional regulators should put on ethics in the future will be problematic. PEO has already made it a focus in its Practice Evaluation and Knowledge (PEAK) program where a refresher course in ethics is at the top of the list for all members. Certainly, there will continue to be cases of individual practitioners acting unethically. However, whether particular ethical problems arise again in the profession as a whole will largely be the result of how educators and the profession react to such transgressions when they arise.


Steven Haddock is an enforcement officer at PEO.

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