The government appointees who oversee U.S. Bank Stadium on behalf of taxpayers get a perk unavailable to most Minnesotans: free tickets to two lower-level luxury suites for all events held there. The suites are for marketing purposes but, they admit, friends and family are often in attendance.
Taxpayers covered almost $500 million of the $1.1 billion cost of the stadium, but the public cannot find out who gets those 36 suite seats each game. The Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA) members decline to say who joins them for complimentary food, beer and, in some cases, free parking in the same lot reserved for Vikings players and coaches.
The Vikings sold "Norseman suites" identical to the two used by the MSFA for between $200,000 to $300,000 for the 10 NFL home games.
Both MSFA Chairwoman Michele Kelm-Helgen and Executive Director Ted Mondale say confidentiality is critical as they seek to book the stadium's event spaces to cover the cost of amateur events such as high school football, baseball and soccer games, along with University of Minnesota baseball games.
"If people think they're going to be in the newspaper, it's not going to be effective," Mondale said.
Still, the perk and the lack of transparency are prompting ethical and perhaps legal questions.
David Schultz, a Hamline University political science, law and ethics professor, said the board is violating state law by using public positions for personal benefit and to access something not available to the general public. The notion that they are using the suites for marketing purposes is "dubious at best," he said. "Beyond state law, it just looks bad."
Two of the original five MSFA members also question the need for two prime suites.
"These seats are not in the bleachers; they're currency," said Duane Benson, who resigned from the board in 2015 after a public disagreement with Kelm-Helgen about board management. "There's a concentration of power here that could be a problem as time goes on."
Kelm-Helgen and Mondale said they work long hours on game days and spent long nights negotiating on behalf of taxpayers during construction of the building, so having friends and family there is reasonable. They also say they need to be in the suites to sell the stadium to clients. "The whole idea is to develop the confidence that we know what we're doing," Kelm-Helgen said.
The Vikings so far have played five home games and two preseason games, meaning up to 252 people could have attended games in the suites.
After the Star Tribune made a request through Gov. Mark Dayton's office, Mondale and Kelm-Helgen provided the names of 12 current and former public officials who attended and paid for suite tickets to NFL games. All but one, former Vice President Walter Mondale, paid for the tickets recently. Mondale, who attended the opening Green Bay Packers game Sept. 18 as a guest of his son, wrote a $350 check that was deposited late last month. No other checks were deposited until Nov. 17, after the Star Tribune began inquiring about the seats.
Among the guests in the suites who reimbursed the MSFA $200 this month were: Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and her husband, Gary Cunningham; several state commissioners; Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal and her husband, Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans; and Minneapolis City Council Member Jacob Frey.
Dayton supports the MSFA's decision on disclosure. "The governor believes that is the decision of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority," said his spokesman, Linden Zakula, who attended a game in the suite.
The spokesman said state law doesn't require commissioners or staff to pay for their tickets because the stadium is a "public entity" and they're engaged in public business. Zakula said he recently paid $200 for his ticket to "avoid the appearance of impropriety."
Minnesota public officials are subject to a gift ban, which includes a prohibition on accepting privileges not available to the public. But the ban allows public officials access to services and privileges when they are part of their duties.
As chairwoman of the Legislature's State Government Finance Committee, state Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, said she wants to "bring some integrity to the process" of the MSFA's management, including the suites.
"We should be able to have a list of who's there and when they're there," she said, adding that she'd like to know if tickets are being illegally given to campaign donors. "There definitely needs to be a change in how they do this."
Across downtown at Target Field, the Minnesota Ballpark Authority (MBA) has a single suite, on the upper level at the end of right field attached to its offices. The MBA's paid executive director, Dan Kenney, said no log is kept of the number of tickets used and by whom. He said it's not uncommon for the suite tickets for midweek day games to be given to charity.
Negotiated with Vikings
U.S. Bank Stadium has 27 Norseman suites on the lower concourse. The two that the MSFA controls, after negotiations with the Vikings during the stadium's construction, are at about the 20-yard line on the visitor's side of the field. Kelm-Helgen, whose job description includes "distribution of event tickets," declined multiple requests from the Star Tribune to be allowed to visit the suite on a game day. When a reporter arrived at the suite during a recent game, Kelm-Helgen was chatting with her adult daughter and declined to speak to the reporter.
In an interview last week, Kelm-Helgen provided only the broad categories of guests in the suites, including members of the city's convention bureau, labor leaders, business leaders, higher education officials and neighborhood leaders. The MSFA eventually identified guests who paid to attend.
Longtime lobbyist Andy Kozak wasn't on the list provided by the MSFA, but said he attended the Nov. 6 game against the Detroit Lions as a guest of Kelm-Helgen and used a free parking spot. He said he's known Kelm-Helgen for 40 years and his clients have been involved in stadium issues like electronics and security. "I frankly didn't think much of it," said Kozak, who has a roster of powerful clients at the State Capitol. "All I can say is I was invited and I went."
Kozak went for free, but Kelm-Helgen and Mondale said they recently determined the market rate for a spot in the suites at $200 by charging $132 for the ticket and $68 for food.
Minnesota taxpayers cover the price of food for MSFA guests. Alcohol is paid for separately by commissioners. The commissioners, who are appointed by the governor and the city of Minneapolis, are not paid beyond a small per diem for monthly meetings.
Kelm-Helgen and Mondale wouldn't say how many tickets commissioners get for events.
Commissioner Tony Sertich, a former DFL lawmaker who lives in Hermantown, said he is allotted up to five tickets per event, including one for himself. He was unable to recall which games and events he had attended, but said he has brought his wife, as well as social and business associates. "I don't cold-call people" to go to the game, he said.
Commissioner Barbara Butts Williams, a dean of business and technology at Capella University, did not respond to e-mails or voice messages. Commissioner Bill McCarthy, Minnesota AFL-CIO president, sent a brief e-mail saying he tries to attend as many events as possible. He declined follow-up questions.
Commissioner John Griffith, a sometime critic of Kelm-Helgen whom Dayton declined to reappoint to the MSFA, will attend his final meeting Dec. 16. He bought his own Vikings season tickets, but used suite tickets for two soccer matches and a Vikings preseason game. "If every week you're just bringing your family to the games," he said, "that's not right."