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Steve Sviggum

Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

Online Read Stout's 14-page opinion at www.startribune.com/CampusConnect.

Legal opinions: Sviggum's two posts pose a conflict

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS
  • Star Tribune
  • March 1, 2012 - 5:34 AM

Two legal opinions released by the University of Minnesota on Wednesday find that Steve Sviggum's job with the state Senate GOP caucus creates an "unresolvable, systemic clash of duties" with his unpaid spot on the Board of Regents.

"This systemic conflict cannot be eliminated, managed or cured," wrote John Stout, of the Minneapolis firm Fredrikson & Byron. "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 U's general counsel, Mark Rotenberg, concurred.

The two nonbinding opinions were requested earlier this month by Linda Cohen, chair of the U's Board of Regents, who launched an inquiry into whether Sviggum's new job creates a conflict of interest.

A three-regent committee will consider the opinions at a meeting Friday before making a recommendation to the full board, which could vote on the matter March 8.

Sviggum, who took the job as executive assistant to the Senate GOP caucus in January, has questioned Stout's impartiality and submitted a legal opinion of his own, by an attorney he has not named.

In a letter to regents, Sviggum noted that he "expressed a great concern" about having Rotenberg involved in any review of his situation. "I feel Mr. Rotenberg is not unbiased and has already made up his mind on the conflict of interest."

The opinion Sviggum released Tuesday argues that "this current 'inquiry' lacks policy and legal basis" and concludes that "it is unlikely that Sviggum will be presented with any issue that presents an issue where his judgment may be impaired."

Stout's 14-page opinion disagrees, listing the many duties of a regent he believes would likely conflict with those of a Senate staffer during the U's "many ongoing material dealings with the Legislature."

The board's code of ethics does not explicitly prohibit Sviggum's new gig. It does require a regent to resign "upon officially announcing candidacy for any partisan elective public office."

Sviggum's analysis states that because the code of ethics names that job, but not his, "where a policy delineates specifics, none other can be assumed."

But Stout believes that the reasons for prohibiting public office also apply to Sviggum's job. In fact, he wrote, that part of the policy "has even more relevance to Regent Sviggum's position because of the partisan nature of his employment position." Unlike an elected senator, who has a duty to serve all the people of Minnesota, Sviggum's duty is only to the GOP caucus, Stout argued.

This is the second time since the Legislature elected Sviggum to the U governing board last year that his day job has raised a conflict-of-interest question. He gave up his paid position with the U's Humphrey School of Public Affairs after a three-regent committee recommended he choose between that job and his spot on the board.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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