A naive act can ruin your career

July 2004 » Columns » PERSPECTIVE
When engineers make "mistakes," they are not always criminal in intent. The story I am about to tell demonstrates how a young engineer can get into serious trouble by not giving due consideration to possible consequences.
Alfred R. Pagan, P.E., L.S.

When engineers make "mistakes," they are not always criminal in intent. The story I am about to tell demonstrates how a young engineer can get into serious trouble by not giving due consideration to the possible consequences of his acts. Acting in the manner described here might ruin a career—even when it is done innocently.

This tale came to my attention many years ago as a result of disciplinary action by the Professional Conduct Committee of the New Jersey Society of Professional Engineers against one of its members. Engineer X (who gave me permission, without using his name, to write about the incident) was found criminally liable as a result of the following series of events, chronicled in a document sent to me by the Professional Conduct Committee.

The allegation was made to the Committee that Engineer X was guilty of misconduct as a professional engineer because he illegally signed his approval to a contractor's partial payment voucher and certified delivery of a small amount of construction materials. The total money involved was less than $300 out of a total construction contract of about $15,000. The engineer did not benefit personally, financial or otherwise, from the incident. Ultimately, the job was completed satisfactorily under Engineer X's supervision without loss to the public. The certification act, although technically illegal and improper, was understood by Engineer X to be consistent with other procedural laxities of the same nature (at that time) in the municipality.

The certification was made in order to expedite timely processing of a partial payment voucher where material delivery was imminent. The engineer fully expected that the materials would have been installed on the job before payment was made, but unforeseen circumstances in the construction schedule delayed the work.

The engineer was convicted by a New Jersey court of misconduct in office, sentenced to one year in the state workhouse (suspended), and fined $1,000. Subsequently, the engineer was found guilty of misconduct as a Professional Engineer by the State Board of Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors for the same offense. He was fined an additional $2,500 by the State Board and his license was suspended for one year. The Board, however, rescinded the suspension of his license.

Note that this crime occurred more than 35 years ago. The total $3,500 in fines (after inflation) would certainly exceed $10,000 today.

The engineer also had to face the Professional Conduct Committee of the New Jersey Society of Professional Engineers. That Committee unanimously recommended that the society publicly censure Engineer X for this misconduct but that it take no additional action. The reasons for this relatively low level of punishment were described as follows:
(a) The nature of the offense was minimal, without intent to commit a crime or perform an illegal act. The engineer's act might almost be characterized as being the result of his naivete and lack of experience. (I think this is the most important point in the entire affair. The engineer probably was unaware of the gravity of what he was doing. The engineer probably was in his 20s at the time, and this probably was his first appointment as a municipal engineer.)
(b) No personal gain resulted, or was intended.
(c) The engineer already had been exposed to intense suffering and public censure, as well as the punishments meted out by the courts and by the state licensing board.
(d) He also had suffered considerable monetary loss in the fines paid, and the high cost of his legal defense for his isolated act.
(e) Justice would best be served and the engineer's rehabilitation adequately concluded by an act of censure [by the state society] and that the best interests of his future engineering contribution to society and personal professional attainment would thereby be justly served.

At the time of the incident I did not know the engineer personally. Subsequently, I came to know him quite well. If he needed rehabilitation, it was to overcome a guileless, rather than a venal nature. In my opinion, he had, and still has, a trusting, open, and aboveboard personality. He was a victim of his own youth and, perhaps, of being thrust too early in his career into an action for which he was not prepared.

The intervening years have proven to me that sometimes rehabilitation works. This column has less to do with Engineer X and more to do with warning young, naïve, or bright-eyed and bushy-tailed engineers to think twice before taking a road that might prove disastrous to an otherwise promising career.

Lastly, I truly believe the punishments meted out were commensurate with the "crime." Often, when a criminal is convicted we hear him say, "I made a mistake." Most of the time it isn't a mistake, it is a reprehensible act. In this particular case, I am confident that Engineer X's action was truly a mistake, for which he was justly punished. It was a mistake that he later surmounted by a long and satisfying career that ultimately resulted in a general benefit to society. 

Alfred R. Pagan, P.E., L.S., is a consulting engineer in Hackensack, N.J. He can be reached at 1-201-441-9719. E-mail: pagan@cenews.com.


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