Regents will get more legal advice on Sviggum case

Linda Cohen, chairwoman of the University of Minnesota’s governing board, said Friday she has sought outside legal advice about Regent Steve Sviggum’s potential conflict of interest with his position in the Minnesota Senate.

It appears this latest PR problem for Sviggum — who faced an unrelated conflict of interest inquiry just last year — will stretch some time after both internal and external legal opinions are ready Feb. 24.

The Senate Republicans announced Sviggum, a former House speaker, got the gig in mid-January of 2012. Days later, Cohen said the university’s general counsel would investigate potential conflicts with Board of Regents policy — Sviggum’s second inquiry in as many years.

She announced at Friday’s Regents meeting that attorney John Stout of Fredrikson & Byron would review the issue as an “additional step” to preserve objectivity. Stout “has advised the boards of large publicly-held corporations, educational institutions and well-recognized nonprofits” in the past, according to a memo Cohen provided to the board.

“Based on my understanding of [Sviggum’s] employment responsibilities, this appears to me to constitute an employment-related conflict of interest with his duties as a regent,” Cohen told the other board members.

Denies wrongdoing

But Sviggum denies any wrongdoing. “”I do not, do not have an unmanageable, whether it be perceived or whether it be real, conflict of interest,” he said, adding that a management plan could clear up any potential sticky situations.

He has offered such a plan to his employer in the Senate, and offered recommendations to Cohen on the matter, Sviggum said.

At Cohen’s request, Sviggum hasn’t voted in any of the board’s committees since the announcement. His position as executive assistant and communications director to the Senate Republicans pays $102,000 annually.

After receiving the legal opinions, Cohen has two options: provide her own recommendation on a course of action to the board or appoint an ad-hoc committee to submit a recommendation. In either case, “The final authority is with the board as a whole,” Cohen said after the meeting.

If the board decides there’s a conflict of interest for Sviggum, it doesn’t have many options.

“We can ask, but there’s no way to force a regent to step down,” Cohen said, adding that he could be asked to recuse himself on certain votes. She was unclear if Sviggum would have to step out for every vote related to the state Legislature.

Sviggum has previously said he would not resign from his post if the request came, but backtracked Friday and attempted to rebuff questions about it. As a reporter pressed him, Sviggum said: “At this point, right now, today, time, I would not plan on stepping down.”

But, he added, “If I stand here on Feb. 10 and tell you ‘no’ or ‘yes’ and then on March 1 tell you … the other way, I’m going to sound wishy-washy, or I’m going to sound like I’m going to put my board members in a bad spot.”

Defended himself

During the meeting, Sviggum defended himself and his new post. He said he would have contacted the other regents to offer his side of the story before this month’s board meeting, but didn’t at Cohen’s request.

Cohen has met with Sviggum twice since he announced the new job.

“In 34 and a half years of public service, my ethics has never, ever, ever been questioned,” Sviggum said, his voicing rising with each word. “I mean that very sincerely and I’ll look you all right in the eye and tell you that. It is not a question, it is above reproach.”

Sviggum’s arguments were similar to those he used last spring as he attempted to retain a seat on the board and an $80,000 yearly fellowship at the university. An ad-hoc committee – similar to one that could make a recommendation in this case – said the two positions were incompatible. Sviggum chose to remain a regent then in lieu of keeping his teaching post.

The Regents voted to adopt a policy change Friday that would effectively close a loophole and prevent something similar from happening again.

“I think the passage of this amendment to the policy today was actually a validation that there existed no policy conflict,” Sviggum said of last year’s controversy.

Despite holding his ground throughout the meeting – and in the past – Sviggum said he didn’t want to be a source of negative publicity for the university. He also politely chastised reporters for following what he effectively called a non-story.

“I wish the papers tomorrow … I wish that they would write their article and the headlines would be” about the substance of this meeting,” he said. “I wish they’d write about that and then one sentence about this. We all know that’s not true. It’s going to be just the reverse. We know that. That’s what sells papers.”

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