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Steve Sviggum should have to choose between his new job with the state Senate Republican caucus and his spot on the University of Minnesota's Board of Regents, an ad hoc group of three regents has decided.
Their decision, which sets the stage for a possible standoff, came in a heated meeting Friday at which the regents agreed that the two posts create a "fundamental, systemic conflict."
"I think it's impossible to maintain the public's confidence in this institution when any regent holds an employment position that is as inexorably bound up in the partisanship of the legislative process as this is," said Regent David McMillan.
Last spring, when another three-regent panel told Sviggum to pick between his regents position and a job he held with the university, he gave up his post with the U's Humphrey School of Public Affairs. But on Friday, he did not step down.
"I'm a down-home farmer trying to do the right thing," Sviggum said, "and that's why I'm not going to walk out of here and resign."
Sviggum, who took the job as communications chief for Senate Republicans in January, believes he can manage the two roles. He said that he imagines the regents find him to be a "pain in the butt," but that it's important to keep him on the board for his sometimes critical perspectives. After the meeting, he said he would "take some time" before deciding what to do.
The full 12-member board, which will consider the panel's recommendation when it meets Thursday, is the "final authority" on conflict questions, according to its code of ethics. But should the board side with the panel, and should Sviggum refuse to step down, it's unclear what would happen next.
Board Chairwoman Linda Cohen and Mark Rotenberg, the U's general counsel, said board policy requires a regent to abide by votes of the full board.
"I'm going under the assumption that he's going to follow the individual responsibilities of a regent," Cohen said, citing a board policy. "If that doesn't happen, we'll go from there."
Legal opinions played role
The three regents on the panel -- Cohen, McMillan and vice chair David Larson-- argued that Sviggum's duties with the Senate caucus at least appear to the average person to be in conflict. It would be impossible, they said, for Sviggum to juggle both loyalties during the U's dealings with the Legislature on issues of funding, bonding and policy.
"Even if a superhuman ... could manage through all the situations I think could arise by using tools like recusal," McMillan said, "I don't think such a person ... could ever overcome the public perception that his or her loyalty, confidentiality and duty of priority to the university could remain intact situation after situation after situation."
The regents based some of their reasoning on legal opinions released this week. John Stout, of the Minneapolis firm Fredrikson & Byron, and Rotenberg agreed that Sviggum's new job creates an "unresolvable, systemic clash of duties" with his spot on the Board of Regents.
"This systemic conflict cannot be eliminated, managed or cured," Stout wrote. "The public's confidence, the integrity of the Board and the protection of the University's public mission require that Regent Sviggum relinquish one of the two positions he currently holds."
The two nonbinding opinions were requested by Cohen, who initiated an inquiry into whether Sviggum's new job creates a conflict of interest. They both end by emphasizing the board's "final authority" on questions of conflicts.
Sviggum says he has support
Sviggum, a former legislator and speaker of the House, makes $102,000 a year in the Senate job. His six-year term on the U board is unpaid.
Sviggum also submitted a legal opinion, by an attorney he has not named, which found that "it is unlikely that Sviggum will be presented with any issue that presents an issue where his judgment may be impaired."
He said Friday that he has gotten hundreds of e-mails, calls and letters from people who support the prospect of him staying on the board.
Among his supporters is media mogul and U donor Stanley Hubbard, of Hubbard Broadcasting. Hubbard said in an interview this week that he sees "no conflict at all" between Sviggum's two positions. He pointed out that it's tradition for the board to include a regent who represents labor and another who represents students, despite the occasional conflicts that might arise because of those allegiances. The public ought to trust that board members are acting in the best interests of the university, Hubbard said.
"If it ever turned out that someone was misusing their position -- then you do something about it," he said.
Hubbard said that because of Sviggum's history of integrity and advocacy for education, the U is lucky to have him and ought to do everything it can to keep him on the board.
"What a great thing for the university," Hubbard said. "Here's a guy who understands the Legislature."
A heated meeting
Friday's meeting included tense exchanges between board members over whether Sviggum cleared the Senate job with them before taking it. Sviggum said that he got Rotenberg and the board leadership's OK on whether several hypothetical positions would jibe with the board's code of ethics, "because I knew situations like this would develop.
"After being thrown under the bus once, you're going to cover your bases," he said.
But Cohen said that the purpose of those conversations was to clarify an amendment to the policy, not the policy generally. "There was never any mention of the possibility of a job with the Legislature," she said. "I think it's important to have the truth out there."
At one point, Sviggum suggested the group "march downtown right now" to take lie detector tests on that point. "Whoever fails resigns."
Cohen emphasized this argument was "irrelevant" in her recommending that Sviggum resign one of his positions. Similarly, the group repeatedly noted that its recommendation was about the situation -- not the person.
"His ethics aren't even on the table for me in this discussion," McMillan said. "Nor is the prior situation that arose last year."
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168