Audit faults Vikings stadium authority for special suite access

ST. PAUL -- Officials at the public Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority "violated a core ethical virtue" by giving friends and family access to suites at U.S. Bank Stadium that were supposed to be used for marketing purposes, a new audit finds....

ST. PAUL - Officials at the public Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority "violated a core ethical virtue" by giving friends and family access to suites at U.S. Bank Stadium that were supposed to be used for marketing purposes, a new audit finds.
The audit found that the Sports Facilities Authority didn't break any law through its use of the free tickets, but recommended that legislators change the law to limit its use of complimentary tickets. It did find the Authority didn't follow a law requiring it to keep records of who received tickets to its suites.
"We held the Authority to its claim that it needs two suites to market the stadium to potential clients," the audit says. "Clearly, we think the Authority strayed from that public purpose when it provided free tickets and suite access to people with no connection to marketing the stadium."
U.S. Bank Stadium has long been a high-profile issue at the state Capitol. Tuesday was no exception, as lawmakers held press conferences, issued statements and grilled witnesses for four hours at an oversight hearing. The fallout included fights about the best way to respond to the audit's findings, as well as political sniping as Democrats and Republicans scrambled to assign and deflect blame.
Family, friends of commissioners, staff
The Authority was created in 2012 to oversee U.S. Bank Stadium, built with $498 million in taxpayer money to host the Minnesota Vikings and a range of other events. (The team was responsible for the rest of the $1 billion price tag.) The governor of Minnesota appoints its chair and two other members, and the mayor of Minneapolis appoints two final members.
As part of its deal with the Vikings, the authority gained access to two suites, each capable of holding up to 18 guests.
"The Authority claims it needs two stadium suites to help it market the stadium to potential customers," the audit notes. "However, the Authority gave a significant number of free suite tickets to people who had no connection to marketing the stadium; many were family and friends of the Authority’s commissioners and staff."
Ted Mondale, the authority's executive director, said Tuesday that it was common for leftover tickets to be given to commissioners or staff to use after they'd invited clients to a given event.
Public questions about the authority's use of free suite tickets were first raised by a November article in the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune.
The audit criticized the authority for providing "poorly compiled, confusing, and incomplete" information about who received free tickets to 12 U.S. Bank Stadium events.
Based on the information it did receive, the legislative auditor estimated that only 29 percent of the 352 total tickets used were for legitimate marketing guests. Another 16 percent were for commissioners and staff themselves, while 45 percent were for friends and family.
The authority claimed a business or marketing purpose for 35 more tickets that the audit questioned. For example, four Metropolitan Transit staff attended a Nov. 6 Vikings game to "review the operational flow of the light rail and bus service."
"We have trouble understanding why a ticket to sit in one of the Authority suites to watch a football game was necessary to observe transportation to and from the stadium," the audit says.
Defense: Use of suites not unusual
Authority officials said giving free tickets to friends and family of commissioners was common practice in other stadiums around the country, and at U.S. Bank Stadium's predecessor, the Metrodome - and currently at the Minnesota Twins' ballpark, Target Field.
"Family and friends were allowed to come to our suite at the Metrodome for 32 years," said Michele Kelm-Helgen, the authority's chair, in an interview with the Office of the Legislative Auditor. "So from my perspective, I didn’t think that there was anything unusual about what we were doing."
The audit disagreed.
"We think the public reaction was so negative and strong because Authority officials were obtaining something free that is expensive and even unavailable to many Minnesotans and their families," it concluded.
Authority leased third suite
On top of the two suites the Authority received for free, the audit also discovered that it leased a third suite from the Vikings.
This suite was part of a separate deal, in which the authority will pay $1.5 million over five years for the right to lease the suite for 30 years. Kelm-Helgen and Mondale said the goal of this suite was to make money by leasing it out, not to host potential clients.
"This is very profitable for the state," Mondale said. Over the seven months since the stadium opened in August, this suite has brought in $192,000 in net revenue for the authority.
The authority can lease the suite for concerts and some sporting events, but not for Vikings games.
The audit recommends several changes:

  • Since no state law governs the authority's use of free tickets, it recommended the Legislature pass such a law. That law should require the suites be used for a "public purpose."
  • Even if there were legitimate reasons for the authority to have a suite, there was no need for two. Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles said the state should keep both as a public resource, but pass a law allowing one or both to be used for charitable purposes.
  • More broadly, the Legislature should exercise stronger oversight of the authority.
  • Since U.S. Bank Stadium is not the only publicly funded venue in Minnesota, auditors suggested lawmakers pass a general law governing use of complimentary tickets to all such publicly funded sports and entertainment venues.

Kelm-Helgen and Mondale argued that the authority already has responded effectively to the issue by implementing a new policy governing access to the suites, which it says "pre-emptively addressed nearly all the criticisms in the auditor’s report." This policy requires better record-keeping and puts more restrictions on who can get access to the suites.
"The two most significant critiques of the authority - use of suite by non-business guests and the manner of record retention - will not occur in the future, because the revised policy has already corrected these deficiencies," Kelm-Helgen and Mondale wrote in a letter to the legislative auditor.
The legislative auditor argued that the authority's new policy doesn't go far enough and lawmakers are already moving to address some of these issues. One measure would add Legislature-appointed members to the Authority and restrict in statute its use of stadium suites.
But Gov. Mark Dayton, whose signature is needed for any changes in the law, pushed back against any drastic changes. He said he's confident the authority "will take care in responding to these recommendations" and praised its "accomplishments" building and operating the stadium.
"Nonetheless, I expect a handful of legislators will ignore these accomplishments, and instead deride and impugn the dedicated public officials who made these successes possible," Dayton said.
Some lawmakers question private suites
Even as the legislative auditor criticized handling of stadium suites owned by the public, Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, introduced a bill concerning privately owned suites. Lesch proposed banning public officials from visiting privately owned suites at publicly funded stadiums, even if they pay for the ticket.
He pitched it as a question of ethics, because ordinary Minnesotans seldom get invitations to exclusive suites. It also had a political overlay, since Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt visited Glen Taylor's suite at a Vikings game last year. Taylor is a local billionaire who owns the Minnesota Timberwolves basketball team and the Star Tribune, among other businesses. Daudt and aide Ben Golnik paid $176 each for their tickets.
Lesch said his bill "ensures the Speaker and others remain free from the taint of special favors from special interests," but Daudt spokeswoman Susan Closmore said it was a "baseless personal attack" that was "trying to change the conversation."
All five current members of the authority's board are appointed by members of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, and some of the guests in their suites had ties to the DFL. Kelm-Helgen disputed the claim that guests were invited because of their affiliation with the DFL, and the audit said it had "no basis to dispute the chair’s statement that officials were not invited because they are members of the DFL party."

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.

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