It was like a judge accepting a gift from a defendant before issuing his verdict.
That's how the local flood-protection advocacy organization Levees.org describes a panel appointed by the American Society of Civil Engineers to review the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers investigation into the Aug. 29, 2005, levee failures. Before the group published its findings, the Corps held an awards ceremony honoring the panel for its work. A recent report examining ASCE-led engineering reviews suggests this kind of behavior leads the public to question the credibility of such reviews.
"We are simply asking all the ASCE award recipients to do the right thing and give them back," Sandy Rosenthal, founder of Levees.org, says of the awards.
Billy Edge, a professional engineer who served on the ASCE External Review Panel (ERP), says that his work with the ERP was completed by the time medals were bestowed. He adds: "I wouldn't return it."
The February 2007 award presentation took place in Washington, D.C., with each member of the ERP receiving the Corps' "Outstanding Civilian Service Medal." Four months later, in June 2007, the ERP, which was funded by the Corps at a cost of about $2 million, published its findings. The ASCE press release accompanying the ERP report first raised the public's ire because it stated that more than half of the Katrina-related deaths would have occurred even if the levees hadn't breached.
Later, in October 2007, Raymond Seed, an engineering professor who had led his own investigation into the levee system, wrote a letter to ASCE accusing its executives of trying to thwart Seed's probe. Seed further alleged a conflict of interest on the part of ASCE because the Corps paid for the ERP report. Faced with this and other criticisms, ASCE announced it would conduct its own internal investigation, the results of which have not been made public. ASCE then asked former U.S. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., to form a task force to examine the way ASCE conducts engineering reviews.
Boehlert's group concluded its work this month and has determined that ASCE, the nation's oldest engineering society with 140,000 members, is still the best-suited organization for conducting post-disaster engineering assessments. The task force also identified problem areas, however: funding, communications and potential conflicts of interests.
The task force recommends that ASCE fund any investigations under $1 million and that the National Institute for Standards and Technology pay for studies that cost more than $1 million. In terms of communication, Boehlert's group notes that "extremely tight controls" are placed on assessment team members with regard to interaction with the press. It suggests more media availability.
The final section of the Boehlert report deals with conflicts of interest. It raises the question of whether "perceived conflicts of interest" pose a threat to public confidence in engineering reviews and later answers, "credibility rests in a large part on the removal of real or perceived conflicts of interest." Professor Michael Davis, a senior fellow at the Illinois Institute of Technology's Center for the Study of Ethics in Professions, says that the ERP trophies might not be a conflict of interest, but that doesn't always matter.
"The fact that it doesn't look good is bad enough," Davis says. "Apparent conflict of interest is as damaging to an organization as a real one."
Davis says that one of the reasons for conflict of interest rules is to preserve the trustworthiness of an individual's or an organization's judgment. If the final draft of the ERP report was completed before the awards were announced, then, Davis says, there is no conflict, but there is still an apparent conflict. ERP members have maintained that the final draft of the main report was written prior to the ceremony.
Until this month, however, the ERP was still critiquing the Corps' work. On Sept. 3, 2008, the ERP sent its review comments for the Corps' executive summary and risk and reliability analysis — 18 months after the award ceremony.
ASCE did not return phone calls regarding the awards and the Boehlert report. Gambit Weekly also attempted to contact individual members of the ERP; most of those calls went unanswered as well. In one case, an ERP member declined to comment until the request had been vetted through ASCE.
"I have a contract with ASCE (as an ERP member) and that contract says I have to go through ASCE for media requests," said Robert Gilbert, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Texas.
Davis says the damage already has been done. The question no longer is whether the awards ceremony constitutes a conflict of interest or simply looks that way, but whether the ERP members and ASCE should return the medals. Davis thinks that could be a good idea.
"It might be a way of cleansing ASCE and admitting it's wrong."