Sviggum’s new gig to get a look from attorneys

An early March decision is expected to determine whether Regent Steve Sviggum’s dual roles are a conflict.

Dina Elrashidy

For the second time in as many years, the Board of Regents is launching an external and internal review of Regent Steve Sviggum’s dual roles to determine whether a conflict of interest exists.

Sviggum, a former state legislator, took a job as the executive assistant and communications chief for the Minnesota Senate Republican Caucus in January. After his new position was announced, conversations began about whether it would be a conflict of interest with his role as regent on the University of Minnesota’s board.

At the request of Chairwoman Linda Cohen, Sviggum abstained from voting in committee and board meetings Thursday and Friday.

Cohen asked for legal opinions from University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg and an independent attorney on whether a conflict of interest exists. Both opinions are expected by Feb. 24. A decision is expected by the next board meeting in early March.

During Friday’s board meeting, Cohen said in a prepared statement “based upon my understanding of his employment responsibilities, this position appears to me to constitute an employment-related conflict of interest with his duties as a regent.”

“This is a serious matter that warrants our careful review,” Cohen said.

Sviggum defended his decision to accept the new position in a response to board members, citing his personal ethics and public service.

Sviggum said that he applied and accepted the position in the Senate after careful consideration and advisement.

“In 34 and a half years of public service, my ethics has [sic] never, ever, ever been questioned,” Sviggum said. “Nor will it be.”

He said his new position will not affect his work as a regent.

Sviggum said hundreds of people have reached out to him to say, “We do need a conservative on the board.” He wouldn’t say what he would do if the review concludes there is a conflict of interest.

“I’m trying to be less confrontational,” he said.

House Higher Education Policy and Finance Committee Chairman Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said he doesn’t believe a conflict of interest exists.

“He’s not a voting member of the Legislature,” Nornes said. He dismissed the significance of the debate, calling it “a distraction.”

Cohen said she wasn’t sure what would happen if Sviggum’s roles were deemed a conflict of interest, because there’s no process to remove a regent.

Last year, Sviggum chose to stay on the board and leave his role as a paid fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. A review committee ruled that his role as a University employee would be a conflict of interest with his position as regent.

Sviggum served nearly 30 years as a state representative, including eight years as Speaker of the House, until 2007. He then served as the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry until 2010, when he was appointed commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Management and Budget before becoming a regent.

Sviggum said he recently put forth management plans for both the board and his new employer to deal with any conflict of interest.

“I sincerely do not want to bring to you as my fellow board members any confrontation,” Sviggum said. “I do not want to bring any negative reactions, any harm to this wonderful institution. … I do not have an unmanageable — whether it be perceived or whether it be real — conflict of interest.”

After his dual roles are reviewed by Rotenberg and the independent attorney, Cohen will either make a recommendation or create an ad hoc group to make recommendations to bring forth to the board for approval.

“It is important that we be objective, judicious and fair, and I believe this process lives up to those principles,” Cohen said.