MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The chairwoman of the authority overseeing the Minnesota Vikings’ stadium resigned Thursday after weeks of criticism over the questionable use of luxury suites by officials’ family and friends, a practice that auditors labeled an ethical violation.
Michelle Kelm-Helgen announced her resignation in a letter, saying it was in the public interest for her to step down from the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority. She and the stadium’s oversight authority have been taking heat for months since their use of two luxury suites was first reported by the Star Tribune, prompting sharp criticism from Republicans who have targeted Kelm-Helgen’s job.
“If I could go back and start over again, MSFA would have had a public discussion on the use of these suites and forbid the use of them by family and friends from the start,” Kelm-Helgen wrote.
A report from the Office of the Legislative Auditor last week found that nearly half of the tickets for those two suites were issued to friends and family of top officials, including Kelm-Helgen and Ted Mondale, the authority’s executive director.
Kelm-Helgen repeatedly apologized to legislators during a hearing on the audit last week, but she and Mondale also defended the practice as commonplace among stadiums around the country.
No state laws were broken, but the auditor’s report said the practice violated a “core ethical principle” and that the marketing purpose of inviting friends, family and certain government employees to games and special events wasn’t clear. The authority has since changed its rules to bar the practice.
Republican legislators have been pursuing major changes to the authority’s structure. A bill that would drastically reshape the authority by giving the Legislature the power to appoint most of its members and eliminating Kelm-Helgen’s salary was due for another hearing Thursday afternoon.
Rep. Sarah Anderson, a Plymouth Republican behind that bill, said Kelm-Helgen’s exit was good news but called it “the tip of the iceberg when it comes to addressing the problems” at the oversight board. She noted that the four other commissioners and Mondale were all involved in the misuse of suites.
“This gives us the opportunity to clean house and put some new people in there to right the ship,” Anderson said.
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton appointed Kelm-Helgen, one of his former senior aides, to help steer construction of the $1.1 billion stadium which just hosted its first NFL season.
While Dayton acknowledged the use of the suites was a mistake, he defended his appointee last week and accused Republicans of “grandstanding” to score political points.
Several Democratic officials paid $200 or more back to the authority for games they attended after the Star Tribune first wrote about the scandal.