Steve Sviggum: Legal opinions find conflict of interest between his U of M, MNGOP gigs

Two legal opinions concluded that Sviggum shouldn't work both on behalf of the state's largest public school and for the senate GOP caucus.
Two legal opinions concluded that Sviggum shouldn't work both on behalf of the state's largest public school and for the senate GOP caucus.

Former Minnesota GOP Speaker of the House Steve Sviggum is an unpaid University of Minnesota regent. He is also executive assistant to the Senate GOP caucus.

But according to two legal opinions released yesterday by the U of M, he should no longer do both.

"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." Attorney Mark Rotenberg, general counsel for the U, concurred with Stout's opinion.

The board of regents approves the U's budget, determines tuition rates, approves campus construction projects, and helps shape university-wide policies. As executive assistant for the Senate GOP, Sviggum's chief duty is to carry out the will of the majority leader and of the party's caucus. In his opinion, Rotenberg wrote that given the university's status as a public institution, it would be impossible for Sviggum to extract himself from decisions and discussions considering the university during the course of his duties at the Capitol -- hence the conflict of interest.

Sviggum disagrees with that assessment. On Tuesday, he released a legal opinion from an as-of-yet-unnamed attorney supporting his view. That opinion concluded that the university board's code of ethics only explicitly forbids regents from working for the university and running for elected office. Since Sviggum is not running for office, he isn't violating the code, the opinion argues.

But Rotenberg wrote that Sviggum's position as a GOP staffer probably creates an even greater conflict of interest than if he were an elected official.

Rotenberg wrote: "Indeed, one might reasonably suppose that such an employee likely will be even more partisan and single-minded regarding public policy issues than an elected Senator, whose duty, after all, is to represent all the people of his district, not just those who associate with his party's caucus."

A three-member panel of regents will consider the opinions and weigh in on the conflict of interest controversy tomorrow. If their views coalesce around the opinions released yesterday by the university, the situation could get tense -- Sviggum has said he doesn't plan to resign from the board, and his fellow regents cannot force him to do so.

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