By KYLE POTTER , Associated Press
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The two top leaders of the authority overseeing the Minnesota Vikings' stadium resigned abruptly 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.
Authority Chairwoman Kelm-Helgen announced her resignation first in a Thursday morning letter, saying it was in the public interest for her to step down from the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority. Hours later, executive director Ted Mondale announced his own exit as top Republicans charting massive changes to stadium governance ramped up calls for him to also step aside.
The pair, and the authority as a whole, had been taking heat for months since their use of two luxury suites was first reported by the Star Tribune. A recent 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 members of top oversight officials, including Kelm-Helgen and Ted Mondale.
"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.
Their departure leaves a leadership vacuum at the oversight board as Minnesota gears up to host the 2018 Super Bowl.
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 both officials' resignation. But she called it "the tip of the iceberg when it comes to addressing the problems" at the oversight board, and said the four remaining authority commissioners should consider following suit. .
"Given the actions of Ms. Kelm-Helgen and Mr. Mondale, hopefully they take that as motivation," Anderson said.
However, the legislative auditor noted that lawmakers may have let their oversight of the authority slip. A panel charged with overseeing construction and operation of the stadium met just once in 2016, and Republicans have not yet appointed any members for 2017.
Anderson said they may have "took things for granted" that the stadium was being run properly.
While Democratic Gov. 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. Dayton appointed both Mondale and 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.
"I feel good about my work, but it is time to move on," Mondale said in his statement.
Several Democratic officials paid $200 or more back to the authority for games they attended after the Star Tribune first wrote about the scandal.