Michele Kelm-Helgen, as chair of the government agency overseeing U.S. Bank Stadium, jumped to the head of the line to buy front-row season tickets for Minnesota Vikings games.
She also helped friends and family members buy the rights to nearby seats, before longtime Vikings season-ticket holders could claim them, records show.
"I never intended to have been in the front of the line and would have waited to purchase tickets later if I had realized how early in the sales process this was," Kelm-Helgen said Friday.
She resigned under pressure in February as chairwoman of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority after intense legislative criticism of her use of two publicly owned luxury suites to entertain friends, family and DFL allies. She left her MSFA post Friday, several days ahead of her previously announced departure date.
In response to a data request from the Star Tribune, Kelm-Helgen said that she, her friends and family occupy seats 20-27 in rows 1 and 2 in the Medtronic Club, marketed as "the most exclusive and upscale" space providing the "ultimate football viewing experience." Another friend holds seats 20-23 in row 3. The seats are on the 50-yard line.
In her role, Kelm-Helgen oversaw the sale of Stadium Builder's Licenses at U.S. Bank Stadium, which helped finance the Vikings portion of the $1.1 billion building. Most fans had to buy seat licenses in order to purchase season tickets. Through a sales agent, the MSFA sold seat licenses in 17 sections with the most desirable locations being marketed first to fans who occupied similar seats in the Metrodome.
The first of the 49,700 seat licenses at U.S. Bank Stadium went on sale March 5, 2014, for Section 1. Kelm-Helgen and her friends bought their seat licenses on that date and paid the market rate of $7,000 per seat, records show.
"I'm mortified," said Minnesota House State Government Finance Committee Chairwoman Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, who is leading the effort to overhaul the stadium oversight panel. "From my perspective, I feel like this is insider trading and she got access to a perk that no one else had access to — and so did her friends."
Seats sold quickly in the new stadium. The 66,200-seat facility was sold out when it opened for the 2016 Vikings season.
The 1,100 seats attached to the Medtronic Club come with complimentary food and drinks served in an 11,500-square-foot lounge space with fireplaces, plush chairs, a private entrance and access to VIP parking. Medtronic Club ticket holders also get first dibs on tickets to other events in the stadium, such as concerts.
Fans were offered Vikings seat licenses based on where they sat in the Metrodome in 2013. Someone who had a 50-yardline seat at the Metrodome in 2013 would have had the first chance to buy a seat license for a similar seat at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Seat licenses went on sale to the general public in April 2015.
Kelm-Helgen said she never held season tickets in the Metrodome. That means she should have been near the end of the line — behind all fans who had Metrodome season tickets in 2013 as well as those who had tickets at TCF Bank Stadium for the 2014 and 2015 seasons. The Vikings played at the TCF facility while the new stadium was under construction.
To compare, businessman Wheelock Whitney, who had season tickets for 50 years and once owned part of the team, bought seat licenses in the Medtronic Club in April 2014 — almost a month after Kelm-Helgen and her friends claimed their seats, records show. Whitney, who died last year, was married to Kathleen Blatz, the incoming interim chairwoman of the MSFA.
A spokesman for DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who appointed Kelm-Helgen to lead the authority, said Dayton was "not involved in these discussions or decisions." The governor said in a statement, "I am extremely disappointed in anyone using her or his public leadership position to obtain personal benefits or advantages."
Kelm-Helgen said that Van Wagner, a sports-marketing firm hired to sell the seat licenses, had urged her to test their sales pitch on some friends early in the process.
A spokesman for Van Wagner declined to comment.
Vikings vice president Lester Bagley said team officials learned about Kelm-Helgen's seat license purchase after the fact.
"We were made aware that the MSFA chair approached Van Wagner about an opportunity to purchase" seat licenses, Bagley said. "She called them."
Stadium authority CEO Ted Mondale, who also quit amid the suites controversy, did not purchase Vikings season tickets in the new stadium. Neither did MSFA commissioners Tony Sertich nor Bill McCarthy.
Commissioners John Griffith and Barbara Butts Williams purchased seat licenses and tickets, but both had previously owned Vikings season tickets and purchased their seats months after Kelm-Helgen and her friends. Neither Butts Williams nor Griffith is in the Medtronic Club.
Kelm-Helgen said she and her husband bought two front-row seats. Next to them are their friends Mike and Jean Buller, who previously had season tickets, she said. Kelm-Helgen's sister and brother-in-law Margaret and Robert Hanlon bought the next four seats in the front row. Kelm-Helgen did not say whether the Hanlons previously owned tickets.
Kelm-Helgen's husband's law firm — Anderson, Helgen, Davis and Cefalu — purchased four seats in the second row directly behind her, as did Sharon and Bruce Hendry, Kelm-Helgen's neighbors. Kelm-Helgen did not indicate whether the Hendrys previously had tickets.
In the third row behind the Kelm-Helgens, lawyer-lobbyist Ted Grindal bought four seats. Grindal's law firm, Lockridge, Grindal, Nauen holds a lobbying contract with the MSFA. Grindal has been a longtime Vikings season-ticket holder.
None of Kelm-Helgen's friends or family returned messages. Her sister Margaret Hanlon answered the phone, but refused to say whether she and her husband had seats in the Metrodome.
Anderson said the revelation affirms her push to "clean house" at the MSFA.
Hamline University law and ethics professor David Schultz, who was critical of the suites usage, said Kelm-Helgen's purchase of the tickets was an unethical use of public office for personal gain that could also be illegal. "Almost anybody who worked in state government would realize this is a misuse of a public position," he said. "The appearance of misuse is just so great."
Kelm-Helgen responded Friday in a single e-mail and did not answer follow-up questions or accept phone calls. "While I had viewed this as being a helpful part of the sales process, I must say again I certainly regret I did not think more about public perception and therefore the impact of my actions," she said.
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747