The state’s top auditor said he’s opened a “priority” investigation into the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority’s control of two prime luxury suites in U.S. Bank Stadium. Separately, the state senator who sponsored the bill authorizing the stadium said she’s “disgusted” by the lack of transparency by the authority over who uses the suites at Vikings games and other events.

Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles said Wednesday that he had begun an inquiry into the MSFA’s “control and use of suites in the U.S. Bank Stadium.”

The nonpartisan office conducts routine audits on the financial activities of state agencies and boards and investigates potential wrongdoing.

Incoming Senate Finance Chairwoman Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, who sponsored the stadium legislation, said she wants the names of suite guests to be public. Rosen said “drastic” action needs to be taken by either Gov. Mark Dayton or the Legislature to bring accountability and credibility to the MSFA. “Right now, it’s apparent they’re trying to hide something,” she said.

In a statement, Dayton said he deferred to the MSFA on its handling of the suites, saying the group was continuing a Metrodome tradition of using suites to market the building. The governor also said that Rosen raised “legitimate concerns” and he welcomed an examination by Nobles.

“My standard is that every public dollar should be expended for a public purpose, and that standard should be applied to this practice as well,” he wrote. “However, I do not believe that this episode should be allowed to overshadow the phenomenal accomplishments of” the MSFA, its chairwoman, Michele Kelm-Helgen, and executive director, Ted Mondale. “They built for the people of Minnesota a multipurpose stadium on time and on budget,” he said.

The $1.1 billion stadium is the largest public-private partnership in state history, with taxpayers contributing almost $500 million. Dayton in 2012 appointed Kelm-Helgen, then his deputy chief of staff for legislative affairs, to her position with the MSFA, which was charged with the design, construction and operation of the stadium. She and Mondale have decades of ties to the governor and the DFL through their fathers.

There was growing concern Wednesday from Republicans about the DFL-controlled MSFA and who is using the suites. Two House Republicans, including Rep. Peggy Scott of Andover, chairwoman of the data practices committee, said they will hold a news conference Thursday to call for increased transparency about who gets invited to the suite for events.

Kelm-Helgen and Mondale said in a statement that the MSFA was “caught off-guard” by the interest in the usage of the suites and they appreciate the concern. The say they will conduct their own survey of suite usage across the country and in the Twin Cities “for potential revisions to the suite use policy” at U.S. Bank Stadium.

“The MSFA has a significant responsibility and purpose to book the stadium with events beyond the 10 Vikings games because the stadium has many event spaces similar to hotels and convention centers and attempts to attract significant events such as the Super Bowl, Final Four and the X Games,” the statement said.

On Sunday, the Star Tribune reported that Kelm-Helgen and Mondale control access to two lower-level luxury “Norseman Suites” for all events at the stadium. The MSFA controls 36 tickets per game and also gets free parking spaces in the surface lot used by Vikings players.

Nobles said he’s so concerned that he’s aiming to complete an audit by mid-January, for legislators to have when the session starts. “We will do this with complete independence; legislators will not see results until we issue a public report,” he said.

His office has many other investigations in process, Nobles said, but added, “I consider this an important issue and will make it a priority.”

Rosen said MSFA’s use of the suites has “tarnished a state asset that we should all be proud of.” She said she feels responsible for the problems because she was an author of the bill to build the stadium.

Kelm-Helgen and Mondale said they and the four MSFA commissioners use the suites to host potential clients who are looking to rent all or portions of the stadium, which opened in August. Last week, they released the identities of 12 current and former public officials who reimbursed the authority $200 for their tickets to the suite.

In the past two weeks, reimbursement checks were deposited from Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and her husband, Gary Cunningham, city attorney Susan Segal and her husband, Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans (who attended two games and deposited a total of $800) and City Council Member Jacob Frey, who said he was there to talk to X Games officials and doesn’t even like football.

Rosen said the MSFA only needs one luxury suite at most — not two.

Won’t release guest names

Mondale and Kelm-Helgen said they’re not releasing the names of their guests any time soon because state law prevents them from doing so. They say marketing activities can be kept private.

Beginning with the Vikings game against the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday night, they said they will release the names of staff or commissioners who use tickets as well as “any other individual who attends” as a “guest to support the marketing activity.” The pair say they will identify “the types of groups” in the suites, but not their “specific entities or their representatives.”

Until the investigations are complete, they will no longer invite friends and family to the suites, they say. The pair had argued they work long hours so it was “reasonable” to have their family with them.

Hamline University law and ethics professor David Schultz said it’s wrong for government officials to keep the public in the dark. “So the law insulates them from providing information that we would need to determine that they’re using government resources the way they’re supposed to?” Schultz asked, adding, “We have evidence they’re not, and the law potentially enables their bad behavior.”

He said the law also enables them to pay special interests, business and education and labor leaders, to join them in the suite, essentially causing taxpayers to pay for the special access to policymakers.

For the Thursday game, Kelm-Helgen and Mondale said they will attend along with MSFA Commissioner Bill McCarthy, president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO. As for others who will be in the two 18-person suites, the statement said, the following types of organizations will be there for marketing purposes: “tourism and convention center group, educational institution, concert promoter, minority contracting group, job training outreach group,” NCAA operations staff and a “significant event promoter.”

Beyond the suites, Rosen also has questions about why the state continues to employ both Kelm-Helgen and Mondale, who earn a combined salary of almost $300,000. Under the legislation, Rosen said Kelm-Helgen’s job was not intended to continue full-time after construction was complete.

Rosen called the MSFA’s behavior “ugly government” and said that something needs to happen quickly to restore credibility to the MSFA and stadium oversight.

“There’s a lot of unanswered questions, and [Kelm-Helgen] has got to answer them,” Rosen said.

 

Twitter: @rochelleolson