UMN Regents chairwoman orders legal opinions on Sviggum case

Opinions, opinions

University of Minnesota Board of Regents Chairwoman Linda Cohen has asked for two legal opinions to advise whether regent Steve Sviggum has a potential conflict of interest with his GOP staff job.

At a regular regents meeting today, Cohen said she expects the opinions by Feb. 24 from both the U’s legal counsel, Mark Rotenberg, and an outside attorney: John Stout of the Minneapolis law firm Fredrikson & Byron.

Sviggum, who was both accusatory and conciliatory when he addressed the board, said he did not want to be confrontational, and apologized for the publicity he’d received.

But he also told them, “In 34 and a half years of public service, my ethics has never, ever, ever been questioned — nor will it be. And I mean that very sincerely, and I look you all right in the eye and tell you that. It is not a question. It is above reproach.”

Sviggum took a job as a staff member with the Senate Republican Caucus last month. Regents have expressed concern that the partisan duties of such a job could conflict with those of regent. Sviggum, they say, might not be able tor advocate the interests of the U fully if they conflict with GOP policy.

After receiving the opinions, Cohen said, she could advise the board to make a decision or call an ad hoc advisory committee to look into the matter. That’s what happened last year when the board saw a potential conflict of interest Sviggum had when he wanted to be both regent and a fellow at the U’s Humphrey School.

Sviggum, who told Minnesota Public Radio Jan. 18 that he would not step down if asked, told reporters after today’s meeting that he’s not saying that again, saying he didn’t want to be “confrontational.”

Cohen told reporters the board had no real mechanism to remove Sviggum if he refused to step down. She said the board might need to work out a recusal process, but said she wasn’t sure yet how to approach the situation.

Stout heads the corporate governance group at the firm, and Cohen said he is “nationally recognized for his work in advising boards of directors.”

He is chairman of the Corporate Governance Committee of the American Bar Association Business Law Section.