Members of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA) could no longer bring family and friends into two free luxury suites at U.S. Bank Stadium under a proposal announced Monday in response to the public outcry over the practice.
The MSFA also released the names of dozens of people who had been guests in the two suites since the building opened Aug. 3, revealing how friends and family members as well as political allies were handed some of the hottest tickets in town from the Metallica and Luke Bryan concerts to the debut regular-season Vikings game against the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 18.
Michele Kelm-Helgen, MSFA chairwoman, and Ted Mondale, its executive director, say the proposed change, which will be considered at the regular monthly board meeting Friday, is not an admission of wrongdoing but a response to “all the interest and consternation and concern” about friends and family attending games. Kelm-Helgen said she and Mondale are proposing the change to “restore public confidence.”
Gov. Mark Dayton, who criticized the reports about suite use as “sensationalized,” now commends the MSFA’s decision to release the names, and to ban friends and family. “Those changes are consistent with my previously stated position that public funds should only be expended for a public purpose,” said Dayton, who appoints three of the five voting members of the MSFA, including Kelm-Helgen, his former deputy chief of staff.
State Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, incoming Senate Finance Committee chairwoman and a sponsor of the 2012 stadium bill, however, said the MSFA’s latest move “still doesn’t provide a whole lot of comfort.”
In a Nov. 20 story, the Star Tribune reported that Kelm-Helgen and Mondale controlled access to two main concourse luxury suites at the $1.1 billion stadium that opened in August. The suites accommodate 18 guests each and sell for at least $200,000 for the full 10-game Vikings season.
The MSFA refused to reveal who had been in the suites — with the exception of 12 public officials who retroactively paid for their tickets after a reporter began asking questions. (Former Vice President Walter Mondale, Ted’s father, was the only person to reimburse the agency before the Star Tribune’s questions; he paid $350 for his single ticket to the Vikings-Packers game.)
Ten University of Minnesota officials also released their own names and then paid $200 for their tickets, food, and in some cases, free parking in the lot used by Minnesota Vikings players. Since the Star Tribune began requesting information on guests in the MSFA suites, the agency has collected more than $21,000 from attendees. Many of those checks were collected months after guests attended games.
After reading about the MSFA’s suites, legislative auditor James Nobles opened an investigation that he aims to finish by mid-January in time for the legislative session.
On Monday, the MSFA provided the names of dozens of guests, from friends, family and DFL allies to potential event hosts and prominent civic leaders. Kelm-Helgen said the MSFA took awhile to compile the lists and contact some of the guests to get permission to release their names.
Kelm-Helgen and Mondale say state law bars them from releasing the identities of guests who are there as marketing targets so they will continue to keep those private.
The two, however, say they will release the names of guests who are there for what they called a “public purpose.” Mondale used the example of Metropolitan Transit officials attending to coordinate the light-rail and bus operations before and after games.
Rosen said that the MSFA’s release Monday “solidified the need for a thorough review” because many questions remain about the “sloppy and arrogant management” of the MSFA.
She questioned why the MSFA had kept the names secret in the first place, why the authority still needs two 18-person suites and free parking in the team’s executive lot. She also wants to know more about the role of stadium operator SMG, the global giant brought in to market the building.
Rosen said she’s eager to see Nobles’ upcoming report and has questions about how Kelm-Helgen and Mondale’s jobs mesh with SMG.
The guest lists for the suites include prominent civic, labor and neighborhood officials with strong DFL ties who aren’t household names but are well-known in the left-leaning political circles. Many of them have longtime personal and professional ties to Kelm-Helgen, Mondale and to some of the four MSFA commissioners who received as many as five tickets each for Vikings games.
Republicans didn’t appear to be frequent guests in the suites.
MSFA commissioners Bill McCarthy and Tony Sertich brought their spouses and familiar DFL friends. Commissioner Barbara Butts Williams reimbursed the MSFA for the guests she brought to games, including $2,000 for 20 guests at the U.S. women’s soccer game on Oct. 23.
Commissioner John Griffith, who has been critical of board management, attended the opening soccer match Aug. 3 with his wife and two friends. He used one ticket for a preseason Vikings game and another for the women’s soccer game. Dayton recently informed Griffith that he wouldn’t be reappointed to the board.
Mondale and Kelm-Helgen said the policy on luxury suite guests at U.S. Bank policy is more strict than it was at the Metrodome, but, apparently, didn’t go far enough. “There’s a whole new standard that’s being set and we accept that,” Kelm-Helgen said. “I do not want something like the suite policy to affect the view, the trust that the public has in the authority.”
Kelm-Helgen reimbursed the MSFA for numerous tickets to events in the past few months, including those used by her husband, Hank Helgen, for soccer games and for Luke Bryan and Metallica shows, the first and second concerts in the building.
Ted Mondale’s adult son and his wife were frequent guests at stadium events. Sometimes he also brought his stepdaughters. On occasion, he brought the husband and daughter of MSFA spokeswoman Jenn Hathaway. Mondale brought nine guests to the Luke Bryan show, including his wife, two staff members and six other guests.
Hathaway sent an e-mail late Monday Mondale will pay for all those events: “Ted is writing a check for his family who attended.”