One of the most important, if unwritten rules of Minnesota politics is this -- don't get in the crosshairs of James Nobles:
A special nonpartisan report on Tuesday found ethical violations by the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA) in its use of two luxury suites at U.S. Bank Stadium.
The 100-page review by the legislative auditor also generated a testy four-hour House-Senate committee meeting as well as a sharp defense of the agency by the governor.
Legislative auditor James Nobles released the findings of his investigation into the MSFA’s use for friends and family of two “Norseman Suites” at the new $1.1 billion stadium in Minneapolis. He found the board had violated state law by not keeping records about who had been in the 18-person suites since the building opened on Aug. 3.
If you'll recall, the review came because we discovered last year that the MSFA had been using the suites for "marketing" purposes that seemed only to be giving free tickets to DFL politicians and their friends and families. There's more from the Star Tribune report:
The MSFA’s “misuse of a public resource has damaged its credibility and diminished public trust,” Nobles said. His office often conducts routine financial audits of the MSFA, but in the future “will expand our scope — or conduct supplementary audits — to examine many other aspects of the authority’s performance.”
The review was consistently critical of the MSFA. Records provided to Nobles’ office were sloppy and incomplete, the report said. The auditors had trouble matching who the guests were with who attended games, who had been given free VIP parking passes to the lot adjacent to the stadium and who had reimbursed the authority after the public outcry.
Of course, Gov. Dayton responded in his usual churlish manner:
“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,” his statement said.
It wasn't a single episode, of course. The MSFA folks used the suites on a number of occasions and would have continued to do so until the practice was exposed. Had the Star Tribune not reported on the matter at the end of November, it's likely that Michele Kelm-Helgen and Ted Mondale, who run the MSFA, would still be doling out the sweet, sweet suite tickets.
Oh, and there's one other revelation that came out. See if you can spot the larger outrage:
In a surprise that wasn’t in his report, Nobles said the MSFA had acquired a third luxury suite for $300,000 annually for the next five years. The so-called cabins and Truss Bar were built by the Vikings at the highest level of the building for $8.5 million. The MSFA will pay $1.5 million over five years to use the suites for the next 30 years — but cannot use them for Vikings games. SMG markets the suites and has brought in $192,000 since the building opened, Kelm-Helgen said.
Is it the extra suite? Nope. Instead, note that SMG, the Pennsylvania-based company that does the day-to-day operational work for the stadium, is in charge of marketing. So why would MSFA need to control two suites for marketing? That's a larger question that has yet to be answered satisfactorily. I suspect Nobles will be looking into that matter eventually.