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Sviggum downplays conflict of interest talk on ethanol
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House Speaker Steve Sviggum's brothers are partners in the Al-Corn ethanol plant in Claremont, Minn. (MPR file photo)
Three DFL House members say because of a conflict of interest, Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum should stop voting on any ethanol-related legislation. They also say he should give up the gavel when the House debates a $468 million budget-balancing bill on Monday. The bill restores $22 million in ethanol subsidy cuts recommended by Gov. Pawlenty. The farm Sviggum owns with his brothers has ethanol investments, but Sviggum maintains there's no conflict of interest.

St. Paul, Minn. — The three DFLers asking Sviggum to abstain from ethanol votes say the speaker needs to hold himself to a higher standard. They say the integrity of the process is at stake.

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Image House Speaker Steve Sviggum

Rep. Deb Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, also says Sviggum should fully disclose any personal involvement he may have had when he voted on ethanol subsidies in past years.

"I don't want people to raise questions about how ethical this body is or how ethical our leader is. And I think that he should raise the standard under which he is performing," Hilstrom said.

Hilstrom says she won't ask for an ethics investigation. Representatives John Lesh of St. Paul and Aaron Peterson of Madison joined Hilstrom at the news conference.

Sviggum says there is no conflict of interest. He owns a farm with his brothers in Kenyon. He says they share in both the farm's profits and losses. Sviggum says he doesn't directly own any shares in the local ethanol operation. But his brothers have invested $45,000 in Al-Corn Clean Fuels. The family has received $29,000 in dividend payments over the past two years.

Sviggum says he had the option of buying shares into the plant in the '90s, but didn't to avoid any perceived conflict. He says he won't stop voting on any ethanol related legislation.

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Image DFLers on Sviggum's case

"I think if I were to back away from not voting on agricultural issues ... First of all there's no reason for my local farmers, my local neighbors to elect me. First of all. Secondly of all it would show that maybe there's a question of a conflict. And there is none. There is absolutely none. And I am so convinced in my heart and my head in regards to that," Sviggum said.

The interest in ethanol surfaced after Gov. Pawlenty recommended cutting $27 million in ethanol subsidies to help balance the budget. But ethanol interests rebelled. Both the House and Senate have restored most of the ethanol payments in their budget balancing measures.

One senator says he didn't feel comfortable voting on the budget balancing measure because he owns 100,000 shares in his local ethanol operation. Rep. Paul Koering, R-Fort Ripley, invested $15,000 in the Central Minnesota Ethanol Co-Op. He says he's going to sell his shares because he wants to support ethanol as a lawmaker.

"I am a huge supporter of ethanol and I feel like I'm hamstringed now. Because I have these shares I can't really ut the fight that I should be able to. So I've put the wheels in motion to try to maybe sell these shares and go to the wall for ethanol in '04 and '05," he said.

Koering says he's not qualified to offer any advice to Sviggum. He says each lawmaker has to make an ethics-related decision on his or her own.

University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs says he doesn't think Sviggum is violating any ethics rules. He says Sviggum's case falls into a "gray area." But he says part-time lawmakers are always voting on legislation that could affect them. Jacobs says Sviggum isn't voting on a bill that provides him large benefits. He also says Sviggum has been a long-time supporter of ethanol, not someone who decided on the issue for personal gain.

"If we start doing a litmus test on the votes of legislators vis a vis longstanding business practices they have, there's going to be a lot of legislators who are going to be forced to recuse themselves from our decision making. now obviously if there are particular firms that are being affected in which a legislator has a private interest. I think that's a different matter," according to Jacobs.

Sviggum says he won't give up the gavel when the House debates the proposed budget balancing measure on Monday.

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