Legislative Auditor Investigating Stadium Perks for Political Insiders

ribbonNo matter what you think about the financing deal for U.S. Bank Stadium (not much), we can all agree that public infrastructure projects should not be turned into partisan slush funds for political insiders.

Yet that’s apparently what’s happened on Gov. Mark Dayton’s watch as Jon Tevlin points out in a column headlined “Some Suites for DFL Party Big Shots.”

Now I know why Gov. Dayton said the U.S. Bank stadium would be known as “the people’s stadium.”

It’s because the big-shot DFLers who have been given access to some of the best seats in two exclusive suites in the Vikings Magnificent Palace are, technically, people.

Calling it “The Special People’s Stadium” just didn’t have the proper populist ring to it.

Those seats, in the rarefied and inebriated air along the 20-yard line, were essentially free to a cabal of party loyalists, until Star Tribune reporter Rochelle Olson called to ask about them.

Welcome to their world, Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority Chair Michele Kelm-Helgen and Executive Director Ted Mondale. Turns out the DFL-duo has two luxury stadium suites and dozens of free tickets at their disposal, along with their hefty six-figure salaries.

Sultans of Swag Michele Kelm-Helgen and Ted Mondale then scrambled to collect checks from public officials who took advantage of the chance to watch mediocre football in the house that taxpayers bought. That must have been awkward. The DFL insiders came for the “free lunch” and ended up buying the timeshare.

Still, it was a heck of a deal. The Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA) honchos retroactively determined those tickets were worth $132 apiece, and added $68 for food, for a total of $200. The public officials, all DFLers from what I can tell, dug deep for the dough and all was well.

The blow-back continues to build over the paper’s revelations. The perks doled out to family, friends and party loyalists include free food, beer and parking for all events at the $1.1 billion downtown Minneapolis stadium.  Only a handful of public officials who’ve lined up for freebies have been identified so far.

Minnesota taxpayers cover the price of food for MSFA guests. Alcohol is paid for separately by commissioners. The commissioners, who are appointed by the governor and the city of Minneapolis, are not paid beyond a small per diem for monthly meetings.

Kelm-Helgen and Mondale wouldn’t say how many tickets commissioners get for events.

Commissioner Tony Sertich, a former DFL lawmaker who lives in Hermantown, said he is allotted up to five tickets per event, including one for himself. He was unable to recall which games and events he had attended, but said he has brought his wife, as well as social and business associates. “I don’t cold-call people” to go to the game, he said.

Commissioner Barbara Butts Williams, a dean of business and technology at Capella University, did not respond to e-mails or voice messages. Commissioner Bill McCarthy, Minnesota AFL-CIO president, sent a brief e-mail saying he tries to attend as many events as possible. He declined follow-up questions.

But the heat’s on with incoming Senate Finance Committee Chair Julie Rosen planning to hold hearings and have Kelm-Helgen and Mondale testify on the cozy arrangement. She’s reported to be “disgusted” by the lack of transparency and potential impact on public confidence in state government.

In the past two weeks, since the Star Tribune began inquiring about the suites, reimbursement checks were deposited from Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and her husband Gary Cunningham, city attorney Susan Segal and her husband, Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans and City Council Member Jacob Frey.

Not only does Rosen want the names of all past and future guests, but she wants to take away a suite because she doesn’t believe the MSFA needs two.

Beyond the suites, she’s also got questions about why the state continues to employee both Kelm-Helgen and Mondale who earn a combined salary of almost $300,000. She said Kelm-Helgen’s role should have been diminished after the building opened.

Now the state legislative auditor has flagged his concerns with the announcement of a “priority” investigation into the matter.

Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles said Wednesday that he has opened an investigation into the MSFA’s “control and use of suites in the U.S. Bank Stadium.” The nonpartisan office conducts routine audits on the financial activities of state agencies and boards as well as investigating potential wrongdoing.

…Both Rosen and Nobles indicated they want something done fast.

Rosen said “drastic” action needs to be taken either by Gov. Mark Dayton or the Legislature. “The public needs accountability and right now there is no accountability,” Rosen said. “Right now, it’s apparent they’re trying to hide something.”

The way the Vikings season is unfolding, the most intense action at U.S. Bank Stadium may be taking place off the field as legislators take a closer look at MFSA’s game day lineup and roster.

Rosen called the MSFA’s behavior “ugly government” and that something needs to happen quickly to restore credibility to the MSFA and stadium oversight. “There’s a lot of unanswered questions, and [Kelm-Helgen] has got to answer them.”