State auditor to investigate use of Vikings stadium suites by public officials

- Two Republican lawmakers have called on the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority to stop using two suites at U.S. Bank Stadium until questions about ethics and who has used the suites have all been answered.

“We are calling for the MSFA Board and executive staff to suspend the use of the suites starting with tonight’s game until this legal question is resolved,” Rep. Peggy Scott said. 

The MSFA uses two suites in the lower level of the new US Bank Stadium for marketing purposes to showcase the stadium to prospective future clients.  But a recent investigation by the Star Tribune found some of the suite tickets to Minnesota Vikings games went to public officials and family members.  Many have since reimbursed the MSFA, but that does not satisfy Scott.

“Those tickets are actually valued at more than $800, so $200 per ticket is not going to cut it,” said Scott.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, the MSFA says it will not suspend its marketing efforts.

“This evening the MSFA is hosting a number of marketing prospect and active clients in the MSFA suites,” the statement said.

The use of the suites has not just grabbed the attention of lawmakers, but Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles, too. Nobles has announced an emergency audit of the MSFA’s use of the stadium suites.

“My stance is there are a lot of questions that need to be answered,” said Nobles.  “Well, I think it’s been said by the Authority members that there have been family members and friends who have been allowed to use the seats and I don’t see the business purpose for that.  I don’t see the public purpose. “

Nobles says this office will try and complete its investigation early in 2017 for the start of the legislative session.

Governor Mark Dayton says he supports the legislative auditor’s inquiry and waiting to see what it will discover.

“They say they’re using it for marketing and soliciting additional business for the stadium.  I don’t know the facts for those and I’ll defer to the legislative auditor and I’ll make a comment when I know the facts,” Dayton said. 

MSFA Suite Usage Policy

The Legislature found in the Stadium Legislation that there is a public purpose for the MSFA to conduct events for professional football and a broad range of other civic, community, athletic, educational, cultural, and commercial activities.

The Legislature specifically tasked the Authority to achieve two main goals in operating and maintaining the facility:

1) Maximizing access for public and amateur sports, community and civic events as well as other public events in type and on terms consistent with those held at the previous stadium and;

2) Keeping the facility in a first class condition similar to other NFL facilities. In addition, the Board has tasked staff to develop short and long term Capital Plans to ensure that the facility stays in good repair and that necessary improvements such as technology upgrades or acquisition of additional stadium infrastructure should be foreseen and properly budgeted.

The Authority finds that in order to meet the twin goals of community and amateur sports access at affordable rates, as well as keeping the facility in a first class and competitive state, requires an aggressive and on-going marketing effort to attract and retain commercial spectator events as well as mega-events such as the Super Bowl and NCAA Men’s Final Four that will maximize revenues.

The Authority has control of two suites whose purpose is to work with SMG to market the facility to potential and current commercial events. In addition, the MSFA will need to market to other mega events as well as community and amateur sports entities during NFL and other significant events.

The MSFA Board, staff, and SMG staff will actively participate in such marketing activities and efforts during MSFA events. Tickets for each event will be available to Board Members and the CEO/Executive Director for such purposes. In turn, tickets will be allocated to marketing and MSFA will work with SMG to invite potential and recurring users to events, along with megaevent customers and community users as well. Should either the CEO/Executive Director or an individual Board Member not be able to personally attend an event then their ticket(s) will be returned to the Authority for re-distribution.

Alcoholic beverages cannot be reimbursed by the MSFA and a process will be established for user reimbursement or purchase of these beverages similar to the practices implemented at the Metrodome.

MSFA statement

The MSFA is not suspending our marketing efforts. This evening, the MSFA is hosting a number marketing prospects and active clients in the MSFA suites as we continue to do our job.

The MSFA is a local government unit.  The ban on giving gifts as mentioned by Rep. Scott does not apply to local governments.  This is the opinion of the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Disclosure Board. See Minn. CFPDB Adv. Opn. 297 (July 24, 1998).  So, the MSFA has only been following the current law when it has invited government officials and other guests that have a marketing purpose for attending a Stadium event

The legislature, in creating the MSFA, charged the MSFA with managing the Stadium (Minn. Stat Section 473J.09).  The Stadium exists to attract high quality national and international events. The MSFA actively markets the building for events whose revenue allows the Authority to host youth sports and community events at an affordable rate. The MSFA has reasonably concluded that using the suite and tickets for marketing purpose is a reasonably incidental power authorized by the Legislature in Minnesota Statutes Section 473J.09, subdivision 12.  In other words, the MSFA must undertake marketing activities like printing brochures, purchasing national trade advertising or attending national trade shows.  The use of the Suites is intended to be a similar marketing activity.

The MSFA is currently carefully reviewing its procedures and usage to make certain that this objective is strictly followed.  In the meantime, the MSFA remains confident that marketing expenses are a legitimate activity that are required to maintain and expand the Stadium’s success.

The MSFA is not trying to hide anything by not disclosing the names of individuals who have attended for a marketing purpose.  Actually, the MSFA believes it is prohibited from disclosing those names, at least before an event is held at the Stadium.  The Minnesota Data Practices Act says that the identity of those that are in contact with the MSFA about an event are “nonpublic data.”  See Minnesota Statutes Section 13.55.  Nonpublic data is information that a government agency is prohibited from releasing.  See Minnesota Statutes Section 13.02, subdivision 9.  So, the MSFA is trying to follow the law that was enacted, as well as effectively marketing the Stadium.

Gov. Mark Dayton statement

“Senator Rosen has raised legitimate concerns about the use of two suites at US Bank Stadium by the Minnesota Stadium Finance Authority. Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles is properly reviewing a practice, which reportedly began over thirty years ago at the Metrodome. I welcome the Office of the Legislative Auditor examining that longstanding policy, and any recommendations that might be put forth. My standard is that every public dollar should be expended for a public purpose, and that standard should be applied to this practice as well.

“However, I do not believe that this episode should be allowed to overshadow the phenomenal accomplishments of Chair Michele Kelm-Helgen, Executive Director Ted Mondale, their administrative team, and the MSFA Board. They built for the people of Minnesota a multi-purpose stadium on-time and on-budget. They employed over 7,000 workers, 39% of whom were minorities. 

“The stadium has received rave reviews from many sources, and has already attracted numerous world-premiere events. From its opening, it has hosted professional football and soccer games, high school and youth games, public concerts, charitable fundraising events, and countless tours, all virtually error-free.

“The stadium has already begun to fulfill my expectations by triggering over $1 billion in new business investments and several thousand new jobs in East Minneapolis. Its daily operations employ 3,000 people, 60% of whom are men and women of color.

“It is extremely unfortunate that these and other exceptional accomplishments have sparked relatively little press or legislative interest, compared to the suites and recent one-sided accusations by a disgruntled board member. I strongly believe that Ms. Kelm-Helgen and Mr. Mondale deserve tremendous credit for their outstanding work in successfully leading the largest public-private partnership ever in Minnesota.”

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