The former top state data privacy official says the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA) is improperly using a state law to avoid disclosing whom the agency has hosted in two luxury suites at U.S. Bank Stadium for Vikings games, concerts and other events.
Don Gemberling, now a spokesman for the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, said Tuesday there’s nothing in state law that says the MSFA can withhold the identities of people who have been free guests in first-concourse suites the Vikings sell for at least $200,000 for a 10-game season.
“I understand why they don’t want to embarrass God-knows-who,” Gemberling said. But “they’re hiding behind the complexity of the language.”
Gemberling, who has worked in the data practices field since 1973 and helped develop state law, is not the first to question MSFA’s position. Several others, including powerful GOP legislators, have publicly questioned the agency’s refusal to disclose names.
The Star Tribune reported on Nov. 27 that Michele Kelm-Helgen, MSFA chairwoman, and Ted Mondale, its executive director, controlled two luxury suites at U.S. Bank Stadium that can accommodate 36 people. Kelm-Helgen and Mondale declined to release the names of their guests, although now 22 public officials, including University of Minnesota executives, have been identified as guests in the suites. Some have reimbursed the MSFA $200 for their attendance.
Kelm-Helgen and Mondale, however, also acknowledged that friends and family had been invited and that MSFA commissioners had up to five tickets each to use per event. In response to the newspaper’s report, legislative auditor James Nobles opened an investigation that he plans to complete sometime in January.
MSFA spokeswoman Jenn Hathaway said the agency has begun compiling a list of all the guests in the suites since the building opened Aug. 3 with a soccer match. She said she expects the list to be complete by Dec. 16. Hathaway, however, said the MSFA will not release the names of guests who are marketing targets because it is illegal under state law.
That portion of the law she cited, however, says that “not public” information includes the “identity of firms and corporations which contact the facility.”
Gemberling said he was there when that provision was enacted. “This was about people calling the [MSFA] and saying, ‘I’m thinking about bringing in Billy Joel in the fall, what would that cost?’ ” Gemberling said.
What the MSFA is doing is the opposite — “contacting them and saying, ‘we want to give you a freebie,’ ” Gemberling said.
Nobles also sounded skeptical of the MSFA’s interpretation of the law. “We certainly will challenge the claim of the sports facilities folks,” he said. “Their claim that those lists of people who sit in suites is not public — what law says that?”
Hamline University ethics and law professor David Schultz agreed, adding that the state law presumes all data is public unless it is “narrowly” exempted from being disclosed.
“When in doubt, the information is public,” he said.
In a written response to questions, Hathaway said the MSFA is compiling a list of all those who have attended events and that the task is complicated by the fact that “multiple people were responsible for invitations.”
For example, the five commissioners on the MSFA, Minnesota AFL-CIO president Bill McCarthy, former legislator Tony Sertich and Capella University executive Barbara Butts Williams have refused to tell the Star Tribune which games they went to and whom they brought as guests. Sertich said he had access to five tickets per game or event.
Outgoing commissioner John Griffith said he went to two soccer matches and once used a suite ticket for himself at a Vikings game.
Hathaway reiterated that the MSFA “has a legal duty to not release the names of anyone whose identity is protected under the exception in [the law]. The names of all others are public information and will be provided when the list is complete.”
The MSFA had previously declined to release names, except of public officials who reimbursed the state for their tickets.
Staff Writer Patrick Condon contributed to this report.