Oversight of luxury suite use by public officials at U.S. Bank Stadium won’t change despite early resolve at the State Capitol to tighten controls over the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA).
“It’s the status quo. No reform. No changes. No oversight,” said a frustrated House State Government Finance Chairwoman Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, who led the push for change in the House.
Dayton’s spokesman Matt Swenson said, “The administration supports reform of the MSFA and did everything it could to help write a constructive bill in this session.”
Despite the stated joint aim of reform, something went awry with a final plan for changes to the MSFA that had near-unanimous consensus. Those with knowledge of negotiations differ in their assessments of what went wrong at the Capitol as well as their willingness to publicly take aim.
Former MSFA Chair Michele Kelm-Helgen and executive director Ted Mondale resigned from their six-figure jobs earlier this year after a critical legislative audit and Star Tribune reports about their use of taxpayer-funded luxury suites, free parking and $32,000 in food to entertain friends and family at Minnesota Vikings games, Metallica and Luke Bryan concerts and soccer matches. The two initially refused to say who had been in the two 18-person suites on the main concourse.
Legislative auditor James Nobles reviewed the suite use and released an audit saying Kelm-Helgen and Mondale, along with members of the MSFA, had violated a core tenet of public service against self-dealing. The subsequent discussion at the Legislature caused the MSFA to change the suite policy itself, requiring that the names of those who attend be made public and requiring that guests be in the suites mostly for the explicit purpose of marketing the $1.1 billion taxpayer-subsidized building.
Both the MSFA and the Minnesota Ballpark Authority (MBA), which oversees Target Field for the public, awaited direction from the Capitol on suite use.
Regarding U.S. Bank Stadium, legislators had talked about selling one of the suites back to the Vikings, changing the composition of the MSFA and limiting the salaries of the chair and executive director. On Tuesday, it appeared none of that would happen because there was no agreement between the GOP-led Legislature and Dayton’s office.
Although legislators didn’t agree entirely, both chambers had passed bills and recently a House-Senate conference committee approved a compromise version.
The compromise wasn’t part of the final budget deal to be voted on in the short special session. An unresolved difference was what should be done with the two state-owned luxury suites. The House version of the bill would have sold the suites back to the Vikings.
But the stadium’s financial and operating infrastructure is complex and the 2012 legislation that approved construction included a subsequent use agreement negotiated by the Vikings and the state. Selling the suites back to the Vikings wouldn’t have been as straightforward as it would seem and could have caused problems with the building’s bonds.
As a result of the U.S. Bank Stadium suite problems, the ballpark authority at Target Field restricted suite use almost exclusively for charities. Chairwoman Margaret Anderson Kelliher noted that despite the lack of final legislation, Nobles additional in-depth review is still expected this summer. In the meantime, the MBA will continue to allow charities to use its suite.
Dayton appointed Kelm-Helgen and two of the four other MSFA board members. Throughout the public outcry over suite use, Dayton stood staunchly by Kelm-Helgen, criticizing media reports and praising her work in finishing the building on time and on budget.
Since the resignations of the two leaders, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz, also a Dayton appointee, has served as an unpaid interim chair, but said she doesn’t want the job permanently. She hired lawyer Rick Evans as the executive director.
The board’s standards and tenor have changed dramatically under Blatz and Evans from centralized power and opacity to public discussions and transparency.
Despite the changes, “The problem is we’ve done nothing to assure that the same problem we had won’t happen again,” Anderson said.
Three of the four commissioners remain, including Capella University executive Barbara Butts Williams, Minnesota AFL-CIO President Bill McCarthy and former state Rep. Tony Sertich. All three used the suites for friends and/or family. Neither McCarthy nor Sertich reimbursed the state for the tickets.