Engineering Students Hear a First-Hand Account of Ethics Violations

Pamela Butcheck, Managing Editor

On Tuesday, October 1, 2019 engineering and technology students attended a session on ethics provided by the West Virginia State Board of Registration for Professional Engineers (WVBRPE). Executive Director Lesley Rosier-Tabor, PE introduced the session by giving a brief overview of the organization that included its duties and responsibilities. The WVBRPE oversees the licensure of professional engineers (PE) in the state of West Virginia. The WVBRPE also ensures that all engineers (civil, electrical, etc.) working in the state have the required education and experience to carry out their work in a safe and ethical manner. In addition to enforcing safety and ethical standards, the WVBRPE is a participating member of the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES). This council sets the national standard for testing professional engineers.

Board Investigator Aaron Armstrong, PE discussed the enforcement activities of the WVBRPE that include investigating complaints and censuring professional engineers (PE) who violate their legal and ethical standards. Practicing within state borders with out a license, misuse of official seals, and gross negligence are examples of these violations. Violators can be penalized with administrative fees, civil penalties and revocation of their license to practice. Civil penalties assessed by the WVBRPE are deposited directly into West Virginia’s General Fund to benefit the residents of West Virginia and administrative fees are used by the WVBRPE to off-set the costs of enforcement within the organization.

If someone sees something involving a PE that is illegal, unethical, or dangerous, Armstrong advises that they file a complaint. Anyone can file a complaint by clicking the link provided by their Web site, submitting it electronically. Past complaints that have been investigated are available to the public and can be accessed on their Web site. The WVBRPE also verifies the licensing of PE should anyone wish to check the validity of someone’s claim.

The last to speak was James Travis Miller, a formerly licensed professional engineer. He was involved in a “pay to play” scheme within the WV Department of Highways (WV-DOH). Travis spoke of the mistakes he made that resulted in federal charges and his debarment from practice in both West Virginia and North Carolina. He described how he was working for the DOH and wished to transition into the private sector. During his free hours, he began “moonlighting” with a private firm. Travis neglected to inform his current employer, the WV-DOH, and the WVBRPE that he was working with that firm. The private company he was working with had contracts with the WV-DOH and this presented a conflict of interest. This was further compounded by his employer asking him to perform a questionable transfer of funds, which he claimed he did not recognize at the time as unlawful. The employer asked him to add additional funds to the balance sheet he maintained and to withdraw cash, purchase a money order and send it to another PE working in the WV-DOH. He was told that the PE receiving the funds was near retirement and that they were just helping him out.

At some point, Mr. Travis stated that he realized he was involved in a pay-to-play scheme. Even though he was friends with at least one board member of both the WVBRPE and the North Carolina PE Board, as well as an investigator with the WVBRPE, he did not seek help from them, the organization, or other Federal and state agencies. He stated that he was too proud and scared to ask for help. This occurred around the year 2013 and sometime after he left to start his own contracting company. In 2016, the FBI and state regulatory agencies informed the WVBRPE of their evidence against Mr. Travis, his employer (a contractor and PE), the PE who accepted the bribes at the DOH, and one other PE involved in this fraud. After the WVBRPE investigated, his license was revoked for a term of 3 years in both WV and NC and was assessed penalties of $15,000. He has agreed to tell his story to the engineering and technology students for a reduction in his penalties. Thus far, he has paid $5,000 of the $15,000 and currently works at a packaging facility. After he completes 5 informational sessions, he will only owe $5,000 that must be paid by May of 2020.

As for the DOH employee who accepted the bribes, he was served 21 months in jail and lost his pension.