Embattled Sviggum resigns from U’s Board of Regents

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 8, 2012 - 10:03 PM

His job with state Senate Republicans had prompted conflict-of-interest concerns. The GOP-led Legislature will fill the vacancy.

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Steve Sviggum's fight to remain a University of Minnesota regent ended dramatically Thursday when he resigned over conflict-of-interest concerns about his job with state Senate Republicans.

"This hurts bad," he said, choking up during a board meeting. "But for the good of all of us, for the good of the university, I will again -- again -- leave something that I love."

Sviggum handed reporters a letter announcing his resignation. Then he left the room.

The remaining board members unanimously approved language calling on Sviggum to choose between the board post and his position as communications director for the Senate Republican caucus, echoing an opinion given last week by an ad hoc panel of three regents.

Last year, Sviggum gave up a job with the U's Humphrey School of Public Affairs in order to stay on the board after a three-regent panel recommended that he pick between the positions. Thursday's news brings his controversial year as a regent to an end.

Now begins the political process to fill Sviggum's spot on the university's 12-member governing board. Gov. Mark Dayton on Thursday said that will be the job of the Republican-led Legislature, according to two opinions by former attorneys general, dated 1973 and 1961.

"Our readings of those prior opinions is that the Legislature, meeting in session, has the authority to make that decision," he said. "Clearly that's what territorial laws as well as the Minnesota Constitution contemplates. ... I have no dispute with that."

Sviggum said in an interview that a Senate researcher, who had earlier told him that the governor would fill a vacant seat, informed him on Tuesday that the seat would probably be filled by the Legislature instead.

"It wasn't a determining factor," Sviggum said when asked if that news influenced his decision. "But it was a factor."

Before Thursday's board meeting, Dayton said he told Sviggum that he was "embarrassing" both himself and the university by attempting to hold both jobs.

"I saw him at the Gophers hockey game last Friday and I told him that this situation was embarrassing him, embarrassing the university, and he needed to resolve it," the governor said. "I think he should make a decision between one or the other."

Dayton called his comments "my advice as a friend," he said. "I told him I had great respect for his years of service."

Regents chair Linda Cohen said that she expects a replacement to be named "fairly soon," and perhaps before the board's next meeting in May.

Cohen said that she was not surprised Sviggum chose to give up his regents post. "I couldn't see him really giving up a job he was very good at and really enjoyed thoroughly," she said, "not that he wouldn't have been a very good regent."

Sviggum, a former legislator and speaker of the Minnesota House, makes $102,000 a year in the Senate job, which he accepted in January. His six-year term on the U board was unpaid.

Regents have argued that Sviggum's duties with the Senate caucus at least appear to the average person to be in conflict and that his service on the board does damage to the public institution's reputation. It would be impossible, the panel of three regents said last week, for Sviggum to juggle both loyalties during the U's dealings with the Legislature on issues of funding, bonding and policy.

"We must mitigate the chance of a perception of a conflict of interest in the eyes of our constituents so that they speak up for us and continue to support us," said Regent Venora Hung, especially given the university's increasing reliance on private donations.

'A clash of duties'

The regents based some of their reasoning on legal opinions released last week by John Stout, of the Minneapolis firm Fredrikson & Byron, and Mark Rotenberg, the U's general counsel. They agreed that Sviggum's new job created an "unresolvable, systemic clash of duties" with his seat on the board.

Sviggum continued his argument Thursday that he could manage the two roles. He believes that the board has treated him unfairly and that the opinions of the two attorneys ignored key facts. "Sometimes, members, the facts don't matter anymore," he said. "Facts be damned."

In his statement, he added that, "I want to acknowledge upon reflection that for some there is an appearance of a conflict of interest."

Cohen and other regents have often stressed their respect for Sviggum and emphasized that their recommendations were about the situation -- not the person.

"I just want to say that this issue has not been about a person's integrity or anything else. It really has been that Regent Sviggum was caught in competition for his services," said Regent Clyde Allen. "I hope in the long term, Regent Sviggum will be able to see that."

After Thursday's meeting, Prof. Christopher Cramer, chair of the U's Faculty Consultative Committee, expressed hope that "this unpleasantness" will end the increasingly political nature behind selecting members of the university's governing board. Last session, the Republican-controlled Legislature elected as regents a pair of former Republican representatives: Sviggum and Laura Brod.

"It's very hard to say no to your former colleagues," Cramer said.

Having former legislators on the board "adds credibility," he said. But the situation with Sviggum, for whom "rather than past ties [to the Legislature], it was present ties," shows that it "doesn't necessarily seem to serve the university's best interest."

Staff writers Jim Ragsdale and Mike Kaszuba contributed to this report. Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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  • Steve Sviggum told members of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents that he believed he had been treated unfairly regarding a perceived conflict of interest between his duties as a regent and with the Senate Republican caucus. He then distributed his resignation letter and abruptly left the meeting.

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