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The chair of the University of Minnesota's Board of Regents will announce Friday how the board will examine whether Regent Steve Sviggum's new state Senate job creates a conflict of interest.
"It seems to many people and to some board members that there is a conflict," said Regent Linda Cohen. "But we have not determined anything as a board."
The board is the final authority on conflict questions, according to its code of ethics.
This is the second time since Sviggum joined the board that his day job has raised a conflict-of-interest question.
Last March, a three-regent panel decided that Sviggum's paid position with the U's Humphrey School of Public Affairs presented a regular, unmanageable conflict with his unpaid spot on the board, and recommended that he choose between the two posts. He did.
Many of those involved say that this time, the question of a conflict is not as clear-cut.
"I do not think Regent Sviggum's new position poses a 'conflict of interest' in the usual sense of his activities as a regent having the potential to benefit him monetarily in an inappropriate fashion," said Prof. Christopher Cramer. "Rather, he faces what I might call a conflict of commitment."
Sviggum, a former speaker of the House and commissioner of Labor and Industry, said that as the Senate GOP's communications chief, for which he is paid $102,000 a year, he is not a "decisionmaker" and thus cannot have a conflict of interest. "I would argue that if you're not making decisions, it's very hard to make a decision that benefits you or your institution or your organization," he said.
He believes that he can manage his two positions -- and could have last time, too. "If you're going to have a real person with a real job and you're going to be involved with your community, there's somebody who's going to think you have a conflict," he said. "So it's how you manage it."
A call to choose
The board's code of ethics does not explicitly prohibit Sviggum's new gig, but does require a regent to resign "upon officially announcing candidacy for any partisan elective public office." Because of Sviggum's previous situation, the code could soon also prohibit university employees from being regents. That proposed change, in the works for some time, will be discussed at Friday's board meeting as well.
During last year's dispute, an ad hoc regent committee weighed three recommendations: Choosing between the two positions, editing the contract with the Humphrey School or keeping both jobs as is, but with a "conflict-of-interest management plan," which would have outlined when Sviggum would have abstained from a discussion and vote.
The group determined that Sviggum's job could color his decisions on too many issues, including U employee compensation, departments' budgets and academic freedom. His dual roles "may impair his independence of judgment," the group wrote.
This time, Sviggum is arguing for a conflict-of-interest management plan. He has proposed one on the Senate side.
A letter to his boss, Senate Secretary Cal Ludeman, "anticipate[s] any possible (real or perceived) conflict of interest" and offers two ways of dealing with it: "Should there be any direct communications with, for or about the University of Minnesota and the Senate Republican majority, I have asked a member of my communications staff to do that work without my oversight," it reads. It then says that Sviggum would remove himself from participating in "any policy/fiscal decision that directly involves the University of Minnesota."
It's less clear how he'd handle such situations on the regents side. In a recent interview, he said he could not think of any votes for which he'd step out. When asked whether he would abstain from voting on the U's capital request, for example, Sviggum said he would not.
"My employer here is the Minnesota Senate," he said. "I don't know if the University of Minnesota board has ever taken a vote or action item involving the Minnesota Senate."
But Sviggum added that if the board believes a vote poses a conflict, he would abide by that recommendation. He did just that on Thursday -- abstaining from a committee vote on two union contracts. He also said that if, in six months, Cohen says a conflict has developed or will develop, he will step down.
"I have that much faith in her," he said.
Choosing not to vote
Regents regularly recuse themselves. Regent and physician Patricia Simmons leaves the room when the board begins discussing the Mayo Clinic, her employer. Regent Richard Beeson, former chairman of the Central Corridor Partnership, stepped out for votes on light rail. Former regent Steven Hunter, secretary/treasurer of the AFL-CIO, abstained from votes on most union contracts, board minutes show.
"Sometimes disclosure is all you need," said Mark Rotenberg, the U's general counsel. He declined to comment on Sviggum's situation.
But several newspapers' editorial boards and university employees have argued that such disclosure does not solve a larger issue of whether Sviggum's paid position with the Senate will make him a less effective regent.
The Republican caucus' plans may have "legitimate policy positions that sacrifice higher education investments for investments elsewhere in the state," said Cramer, who is chair of the Faculty Consultative Committee but said he was not speaking on behalf of the committee.
When that happens, Cramer said by e-mail, Sviggum will not be able to advocate for the University of Minnesota as a regent ought to.
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168