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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Friendly Advice Or Quid Pro Quo?

Judy Nadler

This case is one of a series written to illustrate ethical dilemmas that occur in public service. Please share your comments or questions by posting to this site.

After working five years at the plan-checking counter at Robinsdale city hall, Gary Hess was looking forward to submitting his resume for the vacancy as assistant planning director. His interactions with the customers coming to have their building permits and architectural plans approved had been challenging in the beginning, but he felt he had “done his time” and had enough experience to warrant the promotion.

The city manager decided to hold an open recruitment for the position. Succession planning was one of her priorities. There were going to be several retirements in the Planning and Inspection Department, so she was looking for someone with management potential. To his great disappointment Gary was passed over, and the job went to Wendy Boone, a planning assistant from a neighboring city. When he asked the city manager why he was not chosen, she replied, “Your time will come. Right now I need strong leadership.”

While he was driving home that evening Gary was increasingly angry over the hiring decision. Not only would he be “stuck” working with the public at the counter, he had missed an opportunity for a more prestigious title and a substantial pay increase he had been counting on. Rather than stay mad, he decided to find a way to make the most of his situation.

The city had compiled a list of approved, licensed contractors that was available at the counter. This list did not imply a recommendation – it was meant to help residents, architects, and builders by listing those companies with a city as well as state license.

Gary began contacting companies on the list, suggesting that because he “admired their work” he would be willing to make a specific recommendation to people who came to the counter. Although he did not ask outright for anything in return, two of the companies promised a financial “bonus” for each contract that came through his recommendation. A third company offered use of a mountain cabin so that Gary and his family could take occasional weekends off to ski.

At first Gary was selective in making these “transactions,” but after six months his kickbacks seemed to be going undetected, and he became bolder. He bought a new car and began bragging about his “weekend at the chalet.”

In her six-month review of department operations—an audit of all activities—Wendy noticed the unusual number of contracts that were going to just three of the two dozen names of the list. When she questioned Gary, he denied any wrongdoing, and insisted that the three companies on the list were, in his opinion, superior. Further, there were no written rules prohibiting making personal recommendations.

Questions for discussion:

  • Is it unethical for a city employee to make recommendations based on his or her experience?
  • Would Gary’s actions have been acceptable if he had not engaged in a quid pro quo?
  • What action should Wendy take with Gary? With other department employees?
  • Is there anything the city manager might do to prohibit this type of behavior?

Wht do you think?

Nov 22, 2011
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