Is UMN regent Sviggum in another potential conflict of interest?

Just how well will University of Minnesota regent Steve Sviggum represent the U now that the former state legislator has accepted a job as spokesman for the Minnesota Senate Republican Caucus?

His move seems to have raised a few regents' eyebrows -- including those of Chairwoman Linda Cohen -- just as a similar move ran afoul of a university conflict-of-interest committee last year.

Do his two jobs put him potentially on opposite sides of the state's higher education debate?

Consider this:

As a regent, he must represent the interests of the university. That could mean advocating for more state spending for the U. But as a GOP spokesman, he'll have to represent the interests of the Republican party -- which has wanted to scale back spending dramatically. Just this last session, it called for deep cuts to the U's budget, deeper than those proposed by the DFL.

Leaders of the university Board of Regents haven't returned calls requesting comment. (Update: I have spoken with Vice Chairman David Larson and Chairwoman Linda Cohen, and Cohen said she's considering looking into the matter. See their remarks in a subsequent post here.) The university's general counsel, Mark Rotenberg, declined to comment.

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When I called Sviggum, he told me there was no conflict according to the U's conflict-of-interest policy.

He said university policy prohibits regents from running for elected office. And the draft of the new conflict-of-interest rules, which the Board of Regents could pass next month, says a regent can't be a university employee, he said.

He told me:

"I am not the decision-maker here at the Capitol. I’m not a senator who votes. I’m a staff member. There’s no decision I make here that will affect the University of Minnesota. ... I’m not an employee of the university. I’m not in an elected position. I’m sure there are certain advocacy groups that don’t like Steve Sviggum that might try to raise the issue, but it’s vetted. "

That vetting happened last week when he talked with Rotenberg, Cohen and Vice Chairman David Larson before taking the job, he said. He described the situation to them, he said, and was told they saw no problem.

He said:

"I tried to check it out as best I could."

And yet Sviggum said he never actually told them the job he was applying for. Instead, he told me that he spoke about the situation "generically":

"I spoke about positions in the MnSCU system, positions at the state Senate, positions at the state House, at the legislature, in state government ... (and whether) the policy (would) prohibit any of those from being on the board of regents, and the answer was no. It was precisely to deal with employees of the university."

Even though he didn't tell them of the specific position, he told me:

"I think I was about as clear as you could be."

He said he did mention the specific position when he asked Sen. David Senjem (R-Rochester) and others on the executive board whether they saw a conflict, and "they didn’t think so either."

Looking at the Board of Regents' draft conflict-of-interest policy (starting on pg. 165) I noticed the following two sections:

Sect. 1, Subd. 2: Paramount interest. Regents bring to task their varied backgrounds and expertise, but are expected to put aside their parochial interests, keeping the welfare of the entire university, not just a particular constituency, at all times paramount."

Sect. 5, Subd. 6: Employment-related conflict of interest. An employment-related conflict of interest exists whenever a Regent's employment relationships may impair independence of judgment.

Do those apply? Sviggum holds no voting position with the caucus, but he does arguably have influence.

He told me:

"Everybody has influence. You can take it so far. I’m not a decision-maker."

You may also remember questions that Senate higher-education committee member Sandy Pappas (DFL-St. Paul) raised last year about Phil Krinkie, a former state legislator who was a candidate for trustee with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system.

Pappas said in a hearing that she doubted that Krinkie could represent MnSCU's interests. Because he's president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota -- a group that traditionally advocates against tax increases -- he'd have a hard time lobbying for more appropriations for MnSCU, she suggested.

Krinkie was still appointed.