An ad hoc Board of Regents committee recommended Friday that Steve Sviggum choose between his dual roles as a regent and a Senate staffer.
The recommendation will be presented to the full board March 8.
The committee stressed that public trust in the Board of Regents could be damaged because of Sviggum’s possible conflict of interest. Sviggum maintained that his roles do not constitute a conflict of interest.
The recommendation comes after the release of two legal opinions — one by University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg and one by Minneapolis lawyer John Stout — that said the conflict between the two positions couldn’t be eliminated and suggested that Sviggum pick one post.
Sviggum announced Jan. 16 that he was taking another job as executive assistant and communications director for the Minnesota Senate Republican Caucus. He was selected as a regent last year.
Sviggum served as a state representative for nearly 30 years, including eight years as Speaker of the House, until 2007.
Although the board drafted a formal resolution to “require” that Sviggum choose between jobs, the board doesn’t have an impeachment process in place for regents, board Chairwoman Linda Cohen said.
She didn’t comment on what the board would do if Sviggum refused to resign either position. Sviggum declined to comment on whether he would step down from either job.
“There are board responsibilities,” Cohen said. “I’m going under the assumption that he’s going to follow the individual responsibilities of a regent. If that doesn’t happen, we’ll go from there.”
But in an emotional and occasionally-heated response that lasted almost half an hour, Sviggum stressed that his position is not a conflict of interest and that he is not the type of person to step down from responsibilities.
“Madame Chair, I come to you with a hole in my stomach the size of lake Mille Lacs. I haven’t been able to sleep,” Sviggum said. “The easy thing for me to do is to get up right now and resign.”
He maintained that since he is not an elected official, his position is not an unmanageable conflict of interest and the time and money spent on this issue was “an unnecessary waste.”
But his colleagues disagreed.
His new position in the Senate will involve him in “high-level partisan legislative deliberations and influencing decisions even though he doesn’t have a vote,” Cohen said. “That would cause a reasonable person to question whether that employment may impair his independence of judgment as a regent.”
His position would put him in “continual conflict” between his two positions, she added.
Cohen said it isn’t necessary to establish that there is an “absolute” conflict of interest but it is necessary to know if a “reasonable person” would perceive one.
The University’s long-term welfare and autonomy are at risk, Regent David McMillan said.
McMillan said he is concerned about the increasing politicization of the regents because the board should represent the entire University’s interests.
Sviggum countered that his political affiliation doesn’t make him unique among regents. The state Legislature selects regents once their six-year terms expire.
“All of you are here a little bit because of politics, guaranteed, because I was part of the decision so don’t raise yourself too far above that,” he said.
Sviggum said his differing opinions with other board members may make him a “pain in the butt,” but his viewpoint is valuable for robust policy discussion.
Sviggum said that he met with Rotenberg on Jan. 11 — before applying for the Senate position — to discuss “hypothetical situations of employment.”
He said he also discussed with regents in a conference call about the same topic.
Sviggum said he verified the employment policy with both Cohen and Rotenberg, who confirmed hypothetically that someone could work in the Legislature but not as an elected official while serving as a regent.
“I asked this question and I did it very clearly, I did it very succinctly … Let me understand clearly both the intent and the result of University employment policy,” he said.
Cohen later said that the Jan. 14 conversation is irrelevant to this issue. She said that the purpose of the call was a conversation on the revision of the Code of Ethics policy and Sviggum did not mention a possibility of a job with the Legislature or his specific job.
Last year, Sviggum stepped down from a fellowship with the Humphrey School of Public Affairs after a conflict of interest review asked that he choose one role.
Sviggum described himself as the “victim” and “underdog.” But board members stressed that the recommendation wasn’t personal.
“His ethics aren’t even on the table for me in this discussion,” McMillan said. “Nor is the prior situation that arose last year.”
Sviggum said that he believes the full board will vote next week to approve the resolution requiring him to step down from one role, but he wouldn’t say what he would do if that is the case.
“I’ll take their advice, take some time and see what happens on Thursday,” he said. “I don’t want to close the door to the point where you can’t step back.”