Editorial: Conflict is clear in Sviggum's two roles

  • Updated: January 19, 2012 - 7:15 PM

Serving as a U regent and top legislative aide doesn't mix.

Steve Sviggum
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Steve Sviggum

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It's good to see former House Speaker Steve Sviggum back at the State Capitol -- good for the many friends he acquired through 29 years in the Legislature and three years as a state agency head, and good for the scandal-shaken Senate GOP majority caucus, where he can have a steadying influence as executive assistant and communications director.

But Sviggum's new job isn't good for the University of Minnesota, where he has been a member of the Board of Regents for 10 months.

For the second time since joining the board, Sviggum's employment has put him in a situation fraught with conflict of interest. The first conflict was resolved when Sviggum chose to resign from a teaching position at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

We believe that Sviggum again has a choice to make. He should not be both a regent and a Senate Republican staff member.

The problem was already evident on Tuesday, Sviggum's first full day on his new job. Reporters emerging from Gov. Mark Dayton's bonding bill briefing found Sviggum waiting outside the governor's office.

Was he there as a regent to say that Dayton's proposal had shortchanged the university? (It did: Dayton recommended $78 million in state bonds for university building projects, nearly $100 million less than the institution requested.)

Or was he there to make the very contrary Senate GOP argument, that Dayton's bonding proposal was too generous?

The answer was neither. Sviggum was there to help reporters connect with senators, not to make an argument himself.

But awareness of his dual loyalties was already raising eyebrows and making headlines. If the Senate GOP goal in hiring Sviggum was to put an end to media coverage of caucus staffing matters, the goal eluded them.

More's the problem for the university. Its separation from the rest of state government is the very reason the Board of Regents exists.

The state Constitution goes to great lengths to keep university governance out of the reach of legislators and governors, making the educational flagship nearly a fourth branch of government.

A unanimous 1928 Minnesota Supreme Court decision explains why. The Constitution aims to "put the management of the greatest state educational institution beyond the dangers of vacillating policy, ill-informed or careless meddling and partisan ambition that would be possible in the case of management by either [the] Legislature or executive," it says.

Regents, who do not receive a salary, are forbidden by their code of ethics to also be elected officials. The Constitution requires that legislators may not hold other elective offices.

But those strictures do not apply to his situation, Sviggum contends. He's a Senate employee, not a senator or "a decisionmaker."

But Sviggum's new job binds him to the legislative branch. As a Senate employee, he is beholden to his bosses.

He will be obliged to tell them what he knows about university lobbying strategy -- while as a regent, he inevitably will be party to shaping that strategy. He will be paid $102,000 a year to represent the Senate GOP position to the public.

Will that duty extend to the regents' chambers?

Sviggum has made matters worse for himself in recent days by claiming that he had been assured by other regents and by the university's general counsel that taking a job "such as this one" did not present a conflict.

Those conversations evidently left the other participants with a very different understanding. They issued a stinging joint statement Wednesday, saying that no discussion of his new job took place.

Clearly, relationships that are crucial to Sviggum's effectiveness on the board have been damaged.

The joint statement allowed that regents are weighing further action. But they have few options if Sviggum insists on keeping both his new job and his board seat, which has a six-year term.

The state Constitution makes no provision for the impeachment of a regent. All his fellow regents can do is appeal to an honorable man to recognize that, once again, he has a conflict of interest.

As he did 10 months ago, Sviggum should choose one position and forsake the other.

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  • REGENTS' DUTIES


    "The governing boards of the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities shall each develop, for legislative and executive branch acceptance, its highest budget priorities in accordance with statewide objectives for higher education ..."


    -Minnesota statutes 135A.034

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Steve Sviggum