A special nonpartisan report on Tuesday found ethical violations by the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA) in its use of two luxury suites at U.S. Bank Stadium.
The 100-page review by the legislative auditor also generated a testy four-hour House-Senate committee meeting as well as a sharp defense of the agency by the governor.
Legislative auditor James Nobles released the findings of his investigation into the MSFA’s use for friends and family of two “Norseman Suites” at the new $1.1 billion stadium in Minneapolis. He found the board had violated state law by not keeping records about who had been in the 18-person suites since the building opened on Aug. 3.
The MSFA, a governmental body created to oversee the stadium, “violated a core ethical principle” by providing 158 luxury suite tickets to family members and friends. Nobles’ office interviewed under oath both MSFA Chairwoman Michele Kelm-Helgen and Executive Director Ted Mondale as part of a probe launched after a Star Tribune story about the suites ran in late November.
Nobles said he gave the MSFA the benefit of the doubt, but found the use of an additional 35 tickets “questionable” and recommended the Legislature tighten oversight of the MSFA.
The report found the MSFA violated state law by not keeping track of who had used free tickets for the two suites, 36 rows up from the field, and found “the authority’s claim that it needs two suites rather than one is not supported by facts or logic.”
In response to the story, and now Nobles’ report, Republican legislative leaders pledged to “return integrity” to the board. Just hours after the release of the report, three GOP committee chairs revealed a new bill that would reconstruct the board with seven members instead of five, eliminate Kelm-Helgen’s full-time job, enhance oversight and limit suite use.
Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, said both Kelm-Helgen and Mondale should be removed from the board. Rosen, a sponsor of the 2012 legislation to build the stadium, was joined by Senate Government Oversight Chairwoman Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, and Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, chairwoman of the House government committee.
“We have time to clean this up before the Super Bowl,” Rosen said. The game will be played next Feb. 4 in the new building.
In a news release, however, Dayton praised Mondale and Kelm-Helgen for their work on the stadium.
“I expect a handful of legislators will ignore these accomplishments, and instead deride and impugn the dedicated public officials who made these successes possible. Their attempts to use this single episode to achieve their own political objectives do nothing to benefit the stadium’s operations or advance the public good,” his statement said.
Legislators weren’t the only ones unhappy — public reaction to the use of the suites was strong and overwhelmingly against the MSFA leaders.
The MSFA’s “misuse of a public resource has damaged its credibility and diminished public trust,” Nobles said. His office often conducts routine financial audits of the MSFA, but in the future “will expand our scope — or conduct supplementary audits — to examine many other aspects of the authority’s performance.”
The review was consistently critical of the MSFA. Records provided to Nobles’ office were sloppy and incomplete, the report said. The auditors had trouble matching who the guests were with who attended games, who had been given free VIP parking passes to the lot adjacent to the stadium and who had reimbursed the authority after the public outcry.
The MSFA was created in 2012 when the Legislature passed a bill to build the stadium. Taxpayers covered $498 million of its cost.
Legislators also were skeptical of Kelm-Helgen and Mondale’s assertions that they were “marketing the stadium” to potential renters after Nobles’ report noted that stadium operations and marketing giant SMG had been hired to do that job.
After the audit was started, the MSFA instituted a new policy barring friends and family from using the suites. The auditor, however, faulted the authority and counsel Jay Lindgren for an inadequate response, saying the new policy was too broad and didn’t acknowledge the prior “misuse” of suites.
“We are concerned that the policy maintains a long list of people who may continue to be given free tickets including public officials and ‘community member groups.’ In fact, after enumerating five categories of people who could be given free tickets, the policy has an undefined category of people called ‘other,’ ” the report said. “In addition, the policy leaves it to commissioners and staff to decide whether there is a public purpose for providing a free ticket to a guest.”
After Nobles explained the findings during the joint hearing, the committee mostly criticized and grilled Mondale and Kelm-Helgen for three hours.
Kelm-Helgen said the authority had heard the public and changed its ways, but Kiffmeyer pointedly asked her, “How can I believe you or trust your words?”
Kelm-Helgen said more rigorous oversight would be an assurance.
Kiffmeyer responded, “Minnesotans don’t want to have someone ... who has to have a heavy thumb on them to do what’s right.”
In a surprise that wasn’t in his report, Nobles said the MSFA had acquired a third luxury suite for $300,000 annually for the next five years. The so-called cabins and Truss Bar were built by the Vikings at the highest level of the building for $8.5 million. The MSFA will pay $1.5 million over five years to use the suites for the next 30 years — but cannot use them for Vikings games. SMG markets the suites and has brought in $192,000 since the building opened, Kelm-Helgen said.
Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, also said he will introduce a bill to “expand the ban on gifts for public officials to prohibit individuals or private associations from giving preferential admission for events held in publicly owned facilities.”