The guests lists at two U.S. Bank Stadium luxury suites revealed this week showed how those with ties to powerful DFLers open doors to amenities not available to the politically unconnected.
On Monday, the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA) released the names of dozens of people who had been guests of commissioners and staff members in two luxury suites at U.S. Bank Stadium. Some of the people are well-known, such as Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal and her husband, state Management and Budget Office Commissioner Myron Frans. Others are known more to insiders such as Gov. Mark Dayton’s spokesman Linden Zakula and his wife, Ali Fetissoff, who is listed as a friend of Michele Kelm-Helgen, chairwoman of the MSFA.
Zakula’s $200 reimbursement was part of the $21,000 collected in reimbursements since the newspaper started asking questions about the suites last fall. Fetissoff, who like many others was invited to the suites for games and concerts, is listed as the vice president of strategy and communications for New Partners, which describes itself as a political and corporate consulting firm that has worked campaigns and issues for President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
New Partners CEO Jerry Samargia and senior vice president Justin Buoen attended the Metallica concert on Aug. 20 as guests of Ted Mondale, MSFA executive director. None of the New Partners executives have paid for their tickets.
Kelm-Helgen and Mondale maintain they need to use the suites to market the stadium to potential users who might rent suites for events and help pay the cost for amateur sporting events in the $1.1 billion building. But many of the names the MSFA released Monday were family and apparently friends, though the MSFA declined to provide background on the names.
“You have all the data that is in our possession; we don’t intend to expend any more of MSFA resources researching information on people, creating new data [which most of your new round of questions would require us to do],” MSFA spokeswoman Jenn Hathaway wrote in response to e-mailed questions.
The MSFA also announced plans to change its policy regarding the suites, no longer allowing board members to invite friends and family to games. The proposal will be voted on Friday by the five-member board.
The authority controls two main-concourse luxury Norseman Suites for all events at the stadium. Those suites accommodate 18 guests each and sell for at least $200,000 for the 10-game Vikings season. The MSFA uses them for other events as well.
The practice has drawn heavy criticism from the Republican-controlled Legislature, whose members will press for more answers in the coming session. Legislative auditor James Nobles also opened a priority investigation after the Star Tribune published a story on suite use Nov. 27.
Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, who opposed the stadium and pushed the legislative gift ban more than 20 years ago, said he’d prefer the suites be rented out to groups for games and events, with the money being returned to the state.
Taxpayers paid $489 million of the $1.1 billion cost of the stadium. Marty said suite rentals could help recover that debt and use it for other needs such as education — even if it’s not a massive sum. “To schools and a whole lot of other things, a million bucks is a million bucks,” he said.
Marty also questioned why NCAA officials needed to visit the suites when the Final Four already is committed to the building in 2019. “There are a whole lot of other ways to market the stadium,” he said.
In response, Hathaway wrote, “We are bidding on other events for the NCAA in partnership with the U.”
Hamline University law and ethics professor David Schultz scoffed at the information provided by the MSFA, calling it a “data dump” without context. “If the goal is to release public information and provide names, they didn’t do that,” he said.
The list of guests appeared to him to show “reciprocity and payback” to good friends. “We’ve got what looks like an abuse of position and no one’s paying a price at all,” he said.
Carleton College political science Prof. Steven Schier said the guests in the suites are “not a random sample of Minnesotans” but rather “elites” getting seats for free. That raises the question, “Why are we funding this?” he asked.
Dayton applauded the MSFA’s decision to stop inviting friends and family. “On the face of it, based on what I’ve read and heard, it’s a big improvement. It provided the disclosure that people wanted and rightly so. They’re going to discuss on Friday a very strict prohibition on anybody coming in who’s family or friends,” he said. “That’s a very responsible way to resolve the matter; I assume the board will pass it. If there are other aspects to it that the legislative auditor comes up with, then that will be the opportunity for us to comment further.”
Kelm-Helgen, who was Dayton’s deputy chief of staff when he appointed her MSFA chair, also hosted many of Dayton’s allies, including Katie Tinucci and her spouse. Tinucci is listed as the “college football bid director for 2016.” She also ran Dayton’s 2014 re-election bid.
Dayton himself has attended a game, but purchased his tickets and didn’t visit the suite.
Some of the guests are listed only by their first initials, and ties to the MSFA aren’t indicated. Some of the names also revealed previously unseen ties. For example, Kelm-Helgen acknowledged Thursday that relatively new staff member Elizabeth Brady is the daughter of friends of hers. Brady has been a guest, along with her unidentified boyfriend, in the suites as have people named Bill, Julie and Will Brady. Bill and Julie Brady are her parents. The Bradys recently reimbursed the state for their tickets.
Pfizer lobbyist Julie Idelkope, who has been active in Minneapolis DFL circles for decades, was a guest of Kelm-Helgen at the Metallica concert. Lee Sheehy, head of Dayton’s Commission on Judicial Selection, and his wife attended the Los Angeles Rams game on Sept. 1. Sheehy, who also worked for DFLers in Minneapolis and at the Capitol, is the director of community and regional programs at the McKnight Foundation. Sheehy paid $400 for their tickets.
Another guest: former Minnesota House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, and her husband. Kelliher is on the Minnesota Ballpark Authority, the body that oversees Target Field, and was there to work on “mutual promotions of stadiums and partner work on significant event bids,” the list said. She did not reimburse for their tickets.
Mason Smith attended the Vikings’ game against the Detroit Lions on Nov. 6 as a guest of Mondale. He is the adult son of Lt. Gov. Tina Smith.
John Pollard, who works for Frans now, attended the Green Bay game as a guest of his former boss when he was a DFL legislator, MSFA Commissioner Tony Sertich. Pollard didn’t respond to calls and emails.
Smith didn’t pay for his ticket. Pollard reimburse the MSFA $200 late last month.