University of Minnesota officials and, in three cases their spouses, say they attended Minnesota Vikings and/or soccer games in luxury suites controlled by the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA) at U.S. Bank Stadium and will now personally write checks for their tickets.
Among those who attended were Athletic Director Mark Coyle and his wife, several associate and deputy athletic directors, and from the president’s office: Amy Phenix, chief of staff, and Beth Eull, deputy chief of staff for policy and initiatives, as well as their husbands. Two officials attended two events: deputy AD John Cunningham and senior associate AD Tom McGinnis.
The university provided the names in an e-mail along with a statement that even though the officials’ attendance was “clearly work-related, the involved individuals value their public roles and the public’s desire for transparency, and to avoid any controversy and appearance whatsoever of impropriety” they will now pay for their tickets. It wasn’t immediately clear how much the officials would reimburse the MSFA.
The Star Tribune reported on Nov. 27 that the MSFA controls two lower concourse luxury “Norseman Suites” at U.S. Bank Stadium. For Vikings games alone, the suites sell $200,000 to $300,000 for the 10-game season. But the MSFA controls the suites for all events, including soccer and concerts, in the $1.1 billion building.
MSFA Chairwoman Michele Kelm-Helgen and executive director Ted Mondale, both of whom are state employees, say they use the suites for marketing purposes. They have repeatedly declined to release the identities of their guests, although previously their family members and friends, as well as those of the four other commissioners have attended games. Since the newspaper report, the two said they’d suspend the practice of bringing friends and family pending an investigation.
On Monday, MSFA spokeswoman Jenn Hathaway again said that state law prohibits them from releasing the names of their “marketing targets” and guests and “the University is a marketing target.” Later, she said the MSFA hadn’t kept a list of all guests and was “putting together lists of all guests for events” and will make it public once it’s complete.
After news of the suites became public, some legislators questioned whether they were being used in violation of the state gift ban and/or campaign finance laws.
Then Legislative Auditor James Nobles said last week he had opened a “priority” investigation into the MSFA’s control of the suites that he wants to complete by next month so legislators have the results before the session begins. Several legislators, especially Republicans who now control both chambers at the Capitol, have expressed dismay and disgust at the practice and pledged to take action.
The MSFA pays millions annually to event management giant SMG to book and operate the building, but those employees have not been guests in the suites.
University officials who attended the first event at the stadium Aug. 3 were Cunningham associate AD Scott Ellison, McGinnis, TCF Bank Stadium director of event management John Tweedy and former senior associate AD for strategic communications Chris Werle.
The purpose, according to Evan Lapiska, director of public relations at the U, was to join staff from the stadium and Sports Minneapolis, an arm of the city’s convention bureau, Meet Minneapolis, because they were jointly pursing an X Games bid and working on NCAA Championship bids.
Attending the Minnesota Vikings inaugural regular season game against the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 18 were Coyle and his wife, Cunningham and McGinnis.
The purpose, according to Lapiska, was to work with Meet Minneapolis and Sports Minneapolis from the city’s convention bureau to “host staff members from the NCAA and observe stadium operations.” The NCAA’s 2019 Final Four will be at the stadium.
Attending the Minnesota Vikings game on Nov. 6 against the Detroit Lions were Phenix, Eull and their spouses.
Lapiska said the two women attended the game “as representatives of the office of the president” while the U and the MSFA “partner on a variety of event hosting bids.”
In response to a request, Meet Minneapolis released the names of five officials who have attended Vikings games at the stadium: CEO Melvin Tennant, senior vice president Brent Foerster, vice president Madonna Carr, account executive Matt Meunier and Sports Minneapolis executive director Scott Romane.
Spokeswoman Kristen Montag said the Meet Minneapolis employees were there with officials from the U, NCAA and X Games. She said no friends or family members attended with convention staff.
For each event, the MSFA can host up to 36 guests in the two suites and, in some cases, the guests get free parking in the adjacent lot used by Minnesota Vikings players that is not open to the public.
Lapiska said the “business invitations” to U officials included the option of bringing a guest and that two parking passes in the players’ lot were offered for each event. He added, “Business invitations for events outside of normal business hours can occasionally include a family member or a guest as well, which was the case in these instances.”
After repeat requests from the Star Tribune, the MSFA released a list of a dozen public officials who had been there and reimbursed them $200 for their tickets, food and drink during events.
The MSFA initially said they couldn’t release the names of guests because their marketing efforts needed to be private. Last week, the MSFA shifted, saying it was legally prevented from disclosing the names of the guests.
Hamline University law and ethics Prof. David Schultz has questioned the legality of the arrangement as well as the lack of disclosure. He said Monday the U’s disclosure raised more questions. The MSFA “is the sole arbiter of what the public has the right to know. They’re basically saying, ‘Trust us … we’ll decide what the public has a right know.’ ”
He noted that lots of organizations, including the NCAA and the NFL, openly court cities in an attempt to pit cities against each other for bids.
Schultz went as far as saying the invitations to U officials looked like “payback” for the use of TCF Bank Stadium during 18 months of construction for U.S. Bank Stadium.
He also questioned the need to use suites to build relationships. “No. You don’t need to sit in a luxury suite and eat a bratwurst,” Schultz said, noting that a lot of what partners would need to see is the operation, not the game on the field.
Gov. Mark Dayton, who appoints a majority of the board, said he has “expressed concern” about the use of the suites to Kelm-Helgen, his longtime political ally and former deputy chief of staff, but that he will wait to get all the facts before taking a position.
Last week, the governor said that he had been unaware that several of his commissioners and his deputy chief of staff Linden Zakula had attended games in the suite and subsequently paid $200 each for the experience.