Gov. Mark Dayton said he “expressed concern” about use of two luxury suites at U.S. Bank Stadium to Michele Kelm-Helgen, chairwoman of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA) and then accused the media of sensationalizing the story while ignoring the success of the $1.1 billion project.
The governor stopped short of giving his support for the MSFA’s control of 36 tickets to two lower-concourse Norseman Suites, saying he will wait until he has “all the facts,” possibly in mid-January when Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles aims to complete an investigation into the suite use.
On Sunday, the Star Tribune reported that Kelm-Helgen and Ted Mondale, MSFA executive director, control access to the two suites, which the Vikings sell for $200,000 to $300,000 for the NFL season, for all events at the stadium.
The MSFA has refused to disclose who is attending the games. They acknowledged they and some of the four MSFA commissioners have brought friends and family to events. Nobles, whose office is nonpartisan, said Wednesday he had opened an investigation.
Kelm-Helgen and Mondale say they play host to sports, business, labor, neighborhood and education officials to whom they are marketing the building that was built by the Vikings and $489 million in taxpayer money. The two say they cannot release the names of their guests because that would be illegal and would impede marketing efforts.
Powerful Republicans at the Legislature, however, question the legality of their practice as well as the secrecy and say they want the guests’ names to be public.
On Thursday, House Ethics Committee Chairwoman Peggy Scott, R-Andover, called the lack of transparency “shocking” and said the MSFA has been treating high-profile DFLers to games and concerts in the suites. (Several public officials, including state commissioners and Minneapolis city attorney Susan Segal, reimbursed the MSFA $200 per game after the Star Tribune began inquiries.)
Scott and Rep.-elect Regina Barr, R-Inver Grove Heights, said the MSFA members and staff are subject to the state gift ban and should immediately stop using the suites for any purpose and release the names of everyone who has been in them.
But even as criticism of the practice intensified this week, Kelm-Helgen and Mondale have said they wouldn’t suspend marketing efforts. For now, though, they will suspend the practice of bringing friends and family to games — pending their own study and the report from the legislative auditor. The MSFA will also release names of staff who use the suites and provide general information on marketing guests.
Before Thursday’s Vikings game against Dallas, the MSFA said Kelm-Helgen, Mondale and MSFA Commissioner Bill McCarthy, the president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, would attend. Other expected guests included representatives from the following: “tourism and convention center group, educational institution, concert promoter, minority contracting group, job training outreach group,” NCAA operations staff and a “significant event promoter.”
The MSFA refused a Star Tribune request for access to the suite during the Dallas game.
While Dayton said he had expressed concern to Kelm-Helgen, his former deputy chief of staff, he declined to elaborate on the conversation. He also said he would await the auditor’s report before taking a position on the suite usage and disclosure. He has previously said he deferred to the board as to how they handled the suites and those who use them.
Despite his having appointed the majority of the five board members, “they’re an independent board. I appointed three of them, but they operate independently,” he said.
He has long relationships with many board members, including Kelm-Helgen, Mondale and Commissioner Tony Sertich, a former DFL legislator.
The governor said he attended the inaugural NFL game against the Green Bay Packers in September, but had purchased tickets and didn’t visit the suites. He said he wasn’t aware that several of his commissioners or Linden Zakula, his deputy chief of staff, had attended games with Kelm-Helgen and Mondale in the suites. He faulted the media, saying it has “sensationalized” the story.
Dayton said the media has failed to cover the success of the stadium, operating without major glitches. Of that, he said, “There’s been virtually no press interest.”