The chairwoman of the government authority that manages U.S. Bank Stadium defended the use of two luxury suites for officials’ friends and family before a panel of state lawmakers Wednesday, saying it’s been common practice for years.
In opening remarks to a House panel, Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA) Chairwoman Michele Kelm-Helgen said the authority accepts that standards have changed on the propriety of suite use by political appointees.
“I clearly heard and understand that people did not support having friends and family in suites,” Kelm-Helgen said in response to criticism, adding: “We now have a new suite policy.”
But she also emphasized that the $1.1 billion new stadium is “unlike any other” because it’s “owned and operated by the state of Minnesota.”
The hearing of the House Government Operations Committee was a first chance for legislators to question Kelm-Helgen since the Star Tribune reported on the MSFA’s use of the two state-owned luxury suites, which are supposed to be used for marketing purposes, to often host friends, family and public officials with DFL ties. Because of an outcry from the public and Republican legislators, the MSFA voted last month to stop bringing in friends and families — at least for now.
The MSFA continues to control the suites, calling them a necessary marketing tool, but says the names of some guests not yet released are protected data.
Committee members posed sharp questions about the possible illegality of gifts, meetings and perks. Lawmakers are also waiting for a report this month from Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles, who late last year opened a “priority investigation” into the MSFA’s use of the suites.
“We don’t like it,” House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said about the use of the suites. If the MSFA was trying to use the suites as a marketing tool for the stadium, Daudt said: “Give people a tour of the stadium. They don’t need to be wined and dined.”
Given that the state owns the suites, Daudt suggested renting them out and putting the revenue toward the $489 million taxpayer share of the building’s construction. The cost of a similar “Norseman Suite” on the main concourse for the Vikings season alone is at least $200,000.
Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, asked about free parking for MSFA suite guests in the same surface lot used by Vikings players and executives.
“I’d like to see the cost … and whether or not that violates the gift ban,” Nash said. That’s a state law that prohibits gifts of money or other items of value to a range of public officials.
Among the officials present in the suites, and who later reimbursed the authority for their attendance, were Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, City Council Member Jacob Frey, Minneapolis City Coordinator Spencer Cronk, gubernatorial spokesman Linden Zakula and state commissioners Kevin Lindsey and Myron Frans.
Thus far, suite guests have reimbursed the MSFA $22,790 — most of it after the Star Tribune story ran. The MSFA put the cost of a suite seat and food at $200 per game. Nash and others said that seems too low and didn’t include parking.
“It concerns me that public officials would attend [events] without checking it out first,” Nash said. He also asked whether a quorum of MSFA members was present during any games, and whether the gathering should then have been announced as a public meeting. A quorum of the MSFA is three members.
Kelm-Helgen said that did happen at one game, but she said it was a “social event.” She said no business was discussed so no public notice was necessary. Nash firmly disagreed and said public notice should have been given.
The MSFA’s governance structure and use of the suites is expected to be on the agenda of several legislative committees this session.
“I think the people of Minnesota want square answers,” Nash said about the suites. “I can’t imagine what a commissioner or mayor is doing there.”
Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, pressed Kelm-Helgen on how the MSFA’s marketing efforts meshed with the role of SMG, which was hired to market and run the building. The nation’s largest stadium operator, SMG pays the state $6.75 million annually, with profit hinging on its ability to market the stadium successfully.
Swedzinski asked if SMG has its own suite. It doesn’t, Kelm-Helgen said. The legislator responded that he’d like to see a report detailing which event bookings could be attributed to SMG vs. the MSFA.