Board sees conflict; Sviggum steps down

The board approved a resolution that forced Sviggum to choose between his dual roles.

Regent Steve Sviggum walks out of a Board of Regents meeting after handing out a letter of resignation on Thursday at McNamara Alumni Center.

Mark Vancleave

Regent Steve Sviggum walks out of a Board of Regents meeting after handing out a letter of resignation on Thursday at McNamara Alumni Center.

Dina Elrashidy

Steve Sviggum resigned from the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents after the board questioned his dual roles on the board and at the state Capitol.

In an emotional speech in front of the entire board March 8, Sviggum challenged the board’s reasoning and the fairness of the process that reviewed whether he could simultaneously hold his board position and a new job with the Minnesota Senate Republican Caucus.

His vacancy on the board is expected to be filled by the next meeting in May — the board doesn’t meet in April.

Sviggum’s resignation cuts short a six-year term that began in February 2011. Shortly after his appointment to the board last year, Sviggum stepped down from a fellowship at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs following an ultimatum from a regent committee that he leave one job.

“My reputation means a lot to me. … I love this University unconditionally. This hurts bad,” Sviggum said at the meeting to discuss his conflict of interest.

 “For the good of the University, for the good of Minnesota, I will again, again leave something that I love.”

He handed out a resignation letter and promptly left the board room.

Now a regent short, the state Legislature will be responsible for filling Sviggum’s seat on the board.

Rep. Bud Nornes, chair of the House’s higher education committee, said Saturday that a date hasn’t been set for the Joint Legislative Committee to meet and make regent recommendations to the Legislature. He hopes to have a new regent selected in early April.

The replacement would serve out the rest of Sviggum’s term, which ends in 2017.

The Joint Legislative Committee will likely go back to the set of recommended candidates named by the Regent Candidate Advisory Council last year. The RCAC picked 13 finalists to fill four board seats. Sviggum, Laura Brod, David McMillan and incumbent David Larson were eventually named to the board.

The board consists of at least one member from each of the state’s eight congressional districts and four at-large representatives. Although Sviggum lived in the 2nd district, his seat can be filled by anyone on the list because at-large Regent Brod lives in the same district.

A short, emotional meeting

Board Chairwoman Linda Cohen said she wasn’t surprised by Sviggum’s resignation.

“I couldn’t see him giving up a job he’s really good at,” Cohen said of Sviggum’s position in the Legislature.

The 11 remaining board members unanimously accepted an ad hoc committee’s recommendation that Sviggum must choose between his dual roles. That recommendation was triggered by legal opinions from two attorneys — one from University general counsel Mark Rotenberg and another from an independent attorney — which said Sviggum’s two jobs created an unmanageable conflict of interest.

Sviggum continued to dispute that conclusion. Since the board’s inquiry began in mid-January, he has stressed that he is not a decision-maker at the Capitol and therefore wouldn’t have a conflict of interest as a regent. Sviggum announced he was taking that job Jan. 16.

“Sometimes, members, the facts don’t matter anymore. Facts be damned,” he said. “You need to know I’m very comfortable with the facts.”

Rotenberg and the independent attorney, John Stout from the Minneapolis firm Fredrikson and Byron, both argued that Sviggum’s role as a caucus employee may pose a larger problem than if he were a lawmaker.

“Indeed, one might reasonably suppose that such an employee likely will be even more partisan and single-minded regarding public policy issues than an elected Senator, whose duty, after all, is to represent all the people of his district, not just those who associate with his party’s caucus,” Rotenberg wrote.

Regents Clyde Allen and Venora Hung said the decision to force Sviggum to choose between his roles wasn’t personal.

“We must mitigate the chance of a perception of a conflict of interest in the eyes of our constituents,” Hung said.