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Report: Friends, family, government officials benefited from free suite tickets

Michele Kelm-Helgen, chair of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, responds a legislative auditor’s report that criticized the authority’s use of two U.S. Bank Stadium suites. She appeared at a joint meeting of the House State Government Finance and the Senate State Government Finance and Policy and Elections Committee Feb. 7. Photo by Paul Battaglia

A nonpartisan report released Tuesday on the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, which operates U.S. Bank Stadium, found family and friends of government officials had benefited from free football, soccer and concert tickets, along with charging the authority with sidestepping a state law requiring keeping a record of who gets free tickets.

Providing family and friends with free tickets, however, isn’t against the law, but it violates “a core ethical principle,” the report states. Auditors said the Legislature should clamp down on the authority’s use of free tickets to events and that lawmakers should exercise more authority oversight.

The Office of the Legislative Auditor on occasion audits and evaluates state agencies and programs with the intention of promoting “good management in government.”

The office began to dig into the allegations after a Nov. 28, 2016, Minneapolis Star Tribune story where officials admitted to giving a significant number of free suite tickets to family and friends of authority commissioners and staff. After the public controversy surfaced, the report notes, individuals began paying back the cost of their free suite tickets.

The authority owns two suites in the $1 billion stadium – taxpayers contributed $498 million beginning in 2012 – for marketing purposes. The auditor’s report found the authority gave 158, or 45 percent, of its 352 tickets to 12 events to family and friends. Since August 2016, the authority gave 101 – or 29 percent – of its tickets to marketing guests.

Members of the House and Senate state government committees filled the table Feb. 7 to hear Michele Kelm-Helgen, chair of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, and Executive Director Ted Mondale respond to a legislative auditor’s report that is critical of the authority’s use of two U.S. Bank Stadium suites. Photo by Paul Battaglia

Commissioners and staff used 58 tickets. The report questions the purpose of the remaining 35 tickets.

“It is very important to realize this is serious violation of common sense,” said Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer (R-Big Lake). “That we would all say using public property for private, personal benefit is a real problem.”

Even after giving the authority “the benefit of the doubt,” Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles noted how poorly the authority’s bookkeeping practices were. The report also states the authority’s control of two suites rather than one “is not supported by facts or logic.”

“It’s become kind of a private club that the average Joe Citizen wouldn’t be able to use and, clearly, when we set out to doing the Vikings’ stadium, it was meant to be the people’s stadium,” Rep. Sarah Anderson (R-Plymouth) said at a news conference. “Now we are far afield from it being the people’s stadium.”

Authority Chair Michele Kelm-Helgen and Executive Director Ted Mondale responded in a 27-page Feb. 3 letter to Nobles, saying it “will fully implement (or already has implemented)” all recommendations.

On Tuesday, Kelm-Helgen went head-to-head with lawmakers in a joint meeting of the House State Government Finance Committee and the Senate State Government Finance and Policy and Elections Committee.

“As we were doing our work at these events, it was definitely, from my position … it always had a marketing focus,” Kelm-Helgen said Tuesday. “I definitely hear that people are disappointed, angered.”

Gov. Mark Dayton, who appointed Kelm-Helgen and Mondale to their posts, said in a statement he welcomed the legislative auditor’s findings and recommendations but remained confident in the duo, citing “over $1 billion in new business investments and several thousand new jobs in east (downtown) Minneapolis.

WATCH The Office of the Legislative Auditor summarizes its findings

“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. Their attempts to use this single episode to achieve their own political objectives do nothing to benefit the stadium’s operations or advance the public good.”

Nobles also found there was a third area – he called it a suite, but Kelm-Helgen disputed the term – that the authority rents out to third parties. The authority is paying $300,000 per year for five years to lease the space from the Vikings.

Nobles said he believes the state should retain the two suites it operates, but give some tickets to charities, which he said was standard practice at the Metrodome.

The benefits of being connected

Some of the tickets auditors couldn’t determine their purpose included four Metropolitan Transit staff attending a Vikings 22-16 loss to the Detroit Lions. Those staffers said they were there to “review the operational flow” of the light rail and bus services to U.S. Bank Stadium, but the report questioned why watching a three-hour football game in a suite overlooking the 20-yard line was necessary.

The authority gave free suite tickets to several people with connections to the DFL Party, the report states. Some hold political office, while others have worked for DFL candidates and officeholders. This includes Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and her husband, and Minneapolis City Council Member Jacob Frey. Former Vice President Walter Mondale, father of the authority’s executive director, received tickets to the Sept. 18, 2016, Vikings home-opener against the Green Bay Packers, but paid for them before the Star Tribune report surfaced.

There is no requirement for ticket receivers to pay. Kelm-Helgen called it “a good faith payment.”

Legislative Auditor James Nobles testifies Feb. 7 before a joint meeting of the House and Senate state government finance committees regarding a review of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority’s use of two U.S Bank Stadium suites. Photo by Paul Battaglia

DFL lawmakers at the joint hearing took issue with the constant barrage of questions, specifically ones related to Kelm-Helgen and Mondale’s job evaluations they consider unrelated to the auditor’s report. Others, like Sen. Carolyn Laine (DFL-Columbia Heights) thanked Kelm-Helgen and Mondale for their work in marketing U.S. Bank Stadium to outside groups.

“It’s about like you get to a point where you get too hot about these things,” Laine said, adding later that she has “no problem with the job you’re doing.”

University of Minnesota Athletics Department administrators joined Kelm-Helgen during the Packers game, too.  

Athletic Director Mark Coyle and his spouse, Deputy Athletics Director John Cunningham, Senior Associate Athletic Director Tom McGinnis and former university president and member of the NCAA board Bob Bruininks and his spouse visited because, according to Kelm-Helgen, it was the first time for NCAA officials to see the stadium after Minneapolis was awarded the 2019 Final Four.

“It is important to the NCAA… that we do have the support of the city, as well as the state,” Kelm-Helgen said.

Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey, along with Frans, Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal and labor officials, watched the Vikings finish their preseason schedule 4-0 by topping the Los Angeles Rams 27-25.

Kiffmeyer went through the list of Mondale family members who attended a number of events and asked the executive director what marketing purpose they had for the stadium. “There are none, nor did I claim them,” Mondale responded.

Making policy changes

Authority board members implemented a policy at its December meeting addressing public concerns, outlawing friends and family from visiting the suites, Kelm-Helgen said.

That isn’t enough for Republicans, who own majorities in both the House and Senate.

Anderson, chair of the House State Government Finance Committee, sponsors HF778, which would crack down on suite usage, introduce legislative oversight and alter the authority’s board membership. Its companion, SF626, sponsored by Sen. Julie Rosen (R-Vernon Center), makes similar changes. Both bills await action in each chamber’s respective state government committees.

Asked if lawmakers thought Kelm-Helgen should lose her job as board chair, Anderson said the new proposal would allow the governor to make one appointment to the board. “It’s up to the governor on how he makes his choice,” Anderson said.

“I would recommend that we try to refresh this board altogether,” she said.

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