Regent’s new job evokes calls for him to step down

Coralie Carlson

Several state legislators called for University Regent Michael O’Keefe to step down from his position if he becomes commissioner of the state’s human services department.
Sen. Larry Pogemiller, a Democrat whose district includes the West Bank of campus, said on Tuesday that he thought O’Keefe should resign from the Board of Regents because of a conflict of interest.
O’Keefe said there is no legal conflict, and he doesn’t see any ethical ramifications that would force him to step down.
In January, Gov. Jesse Ventura appointed O’Keefe to head the human services department, which controls the state’s welfare program. O’Keefe still needs approval of the Senate before officially taking the post.
University and Capitol lawyers confirmed that O’Keefe can legally hold both positions.
Pogemiller, who chairs the Senate education committee, said the human services department and the University both present large budget requests. Therefore, O’Keefe would hold two posts that compete for the same state money.
“You can’t serve two masters,” Pogemiller said.
But O’Keefe said neither post would allow him to make funding decisions; he would only have power to request funding. He also pointed out the large number of other organizations that compete for the same money.
“It’s not as if those are the only two budgets in the state,” O’Keefe said.
Sen. Don Samuelson, DFL-Brainerd, said the commissioner position is more than a full-time job and he didn’t think O’Keefe would have enough time to fulfill his regent responsibilities, too.
O’Keefe said many other regents have “very substantial responsibilities” outside of the board that don’t require them to step down.
The department receives federal funds to conduct studies and the University routinely bids on the contracts, posing another possible conflict, Samuelson said.
“I can understand and respect how Sen. Pogemiller feels about this matter,” O’Keefe said, “but I simply don’t agree with his final judgement.”
B> — Staff Reporter Joe Carlson contributed to this report