Board will examine Sviggum’s Senate role for conflict of interest

Steve Sviggum, a former state legislator, didn’t approach the board before accepting his new position.

Greta Kaul

University of Minnesota Regent Steve Sviggum  accepted a new position in the state Senate Republican Caucus, raising questions about a potential conflict of interest — for the second time.

Sviggum started his new job as the communications chief and executive assistant Tuesday. He took over the role vacated by Michael Brodkorb last month.

Sviggum will finish out the remaining five years of his six-year term on the University’s Board of Regents.

In a press release Tuesday night, board Chairwoman Linda Cohen addressed Sviggum’s new position and potential complications that could arise.

“Although the Board’s Code of Ethics does not anticipate this exact circumstance, it is the board’s duty to evaluate whether Regent Sviggum’s new employment at the Legislature could present a conflict of interest with his obligations as a regent,” Cohen said in the release.

But Sviggum was confident that he could manage both roles without a conflict of interest.

“I am not a decision maker at the Capitol,” he said.

The board met last week to discuss upcoming changes to its policy regarding conflicts of interest and University employees serving on the Board of Regents, Cohen said. But Sviggum didn’t bring up his new position, she said.

“That had nothing to do with this,” she said.

During that meeting, Sviggum said he clarified the new policy to make sure that it only applied to University employees serving as a regent, asking specifically about the possibility of a regent working for the state Senate. But he didn’t notify board members of his intentions to take a job at the Senate.

“I vetted the policy up front. I clarified the policy with the [general counsel]. I clarified with the chair,” Sviggum said.

Another conflict?

Sviggum’s appointment to the board last February was contentious. Opponents called it partisan, while others worried about a conflict of interest between his roles as a Humphrey School of Public Affairs fellow and as a regent.

Had he kept both positions, Sviggum would have been involved with decisions that affected him as a University employee, including approving budgets and reviewing educational policies. A review committee ruled that Sviggum’s roles were a conflict of interest, and suggested that he keep just one position.

Sviggum gave up the fellowship in favor of the board position.

In an April letter to board leaders, Sviggum said he was disappointed to give up teaching but wrote that “serving the best interests of the University of Minnesota is my unquestioned priority.”

Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, was vocal about Sviggum’s partisan ties in his appointment to the board last winter. This time around, Rukavina said it’s unclear whether or not there’s a problem.

As for conflict of interest, Rukavina said, “I really don’t know.”

“As speaker of the House before he was a regent, he had considerable clout in what happened to the University. Being in the Senate … if he wanted to influence something regarding the University of Minnesota, I think he probably would make that point.”

Sviggum served in the state House of Representatives for nearly 30 years, including eight years as speaker of the House. He then served as commissioner of Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry under Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who appointed him commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Management and Budget in 2010.

No precedent

Board policy requires regents to resign if they run for public office.

“There have been regents who have chosen to run for elected office, and they have resigned when they started campaigning,” said Mark Rotenberg, the University’s general counsel.

Ann Wynia served as a regent from 1991 to 1994 but resigned from the board to run for the U.S. Senate.

But unlike the role Wynia resigned to run for, Sviggum’s new post is not an elected public position.

“The ethics code does not have an explicit provision that directly covers this precise situation,” Rotenberg said.

Credentials

Sviggum praised the state Republican Party’s handling of the budget deficit in a press release Monday.

“The Senate Republican majority is definitely moving our state in the right direction; this is an exciting opportunity,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester, lauded Sviggum’s credentials for the position, which will pay $102,000 a year.

“His experience and leadership is unparalleled, and he will be an invaluable asset to the Minnesota Senate Republican Caucus,” Senjem said in a press release. “This unique opportunity gives us the ability to capitalize on Steve’s experience, knowledge of the press, successful decision making skills and relationships he has created over many years of service.”