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U's decision on conflict of interest might change future regent procedures

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A committee at the University of Minnesota decided Wednesday that former speaker of the house Steve Sviggum faces a conflict of interest if he holds both of his positions at the university. So now, he has a decision to make.

Sviggum must pick between serving on the University of Minnesota board of regents, and teaching at the U's Humphrey School of Public Affairs. He disagrees with the decision of the committee, but said he'll abide by it.  He's yet to say which position he'll keep.

Sviggum tried to convince a committee of three of his fellow regents that he can serve on the board of regents, and be an employee of the U, without a conflict of interest.

"I ask that you make a recommendation based on facts, not based upon perceptions or emotions or even pressures," Sviggum.

Sviggum was appointed to the board last month, just after signing a contract with the U to be a legislative fellow.  

He's taught at the school since 2007, but the new contract expanded his duties and increased his salary. The half-time job pays $80,000 a year, most of which Sviggum raises himself. It also requires him to write opinion pieces and raise money for the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. 

The regents position meanwhile is an unpaid, six-year stint.

In the end, the committee decided Sviggum could not work for the university and serve on the board that makes financial decisions for the school, without conflict. 

Board chair Clyde Allen said Sviggum may not think that's a problem, "but there is the question as to where as someone who does have a particular relationship with part of the university can meet the obligation of putting the entire first, and I think that is an issue."

The committee recommended Sviggum resign one of his two positions. The regents don't have the power to force Sviggum to leave the board, or quit his job at the U. 

But Sviggum said he would follow their suggestion, even though he disagreed with it. 

"I believe in my heart that the positions are manageable, that the roles do not provide a conflict of interest, do not affect one another," he said. "But I also hear you the three of your very clearly and very loudly and I accept your decision."

Sviggum asked the committee if he could take a few days to decide which position to resign. If he stays on the board, he said like to first finish out the semester as an instructor.  If Sviggum chooses to leave the regents, it would be up to Gov. Mark Dayton to name his replacement. 

HOW DID THEY GET HERE?

Sviggum was recruited to apply for a seat on the board, and maintains he was always open about his position at the U. 

The Regent Candidate Advisory Council sorts through names of potential regents and sends them on to lawmakers to make the final choice. 

Jane Belau, who chairs the group, said they knew Sviggum taught occassionally at the U.  But he said Sviggum was identified as a candidate in January, and his role at the U was expanded a month later.

"The council sent its names over before the contract was signed between Regent Sviggum and the University of Minnesota," Belau said.

Belau said once the dust settles, the discussion over conflict of interest may change how regents are chosen. 

"There are a lot of things that will happen now because of this, that will be both interesting to watch and will change or strengthen the things we've done in the past," she said.

Regents chair Clyde Allen said the issue has raised questions for the board of regents as well.  Currently there's no rule against a U of M employee being appointed to the board. 

"We have not had to deal with that question before," Allen said. "This was a messy way to deal with it, [and] it ought to be clear whether an employee can be a regent or not."

Allen said to avoid problems in the future, the board may need to change its code of ethics.