STATE OF CORRUPTION: How the Vikings Stadium Deal Went Down And Took Honest&Open Government With It.
“(We) want to respect the business privacy of the Vikings.”
— Minnesota State Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem.
Room 400 North in the State Office Building was a busy place Wednesday evening. People came and went, lots of them, and all of them were power players in the Vikings Stadium drama. Ostensibly, two or three members of the Legislative Conference Committee were meeting — but never more than that number. The six-member conference committee, appointed Tuesday night by House and Senate leaders to reconcile differences in the two versions of the $1 billion stadium bill that had been passed by both bodies, only needed four legislators for a quorum, and a quorum would trigger the state’s Open Meeting law, requiring that the doors to the deliberations be opened to the press and public. If you thought that was going to happen, you are still clapping for Tinkerbell.
Room 400 has a sign on the door saying it can hold up to 80 persons. It is a big room for a six-member committee that couldn’t let more than three of its members inside at any one time. But it needed to be large. Here is a partial list of the VIPs who came and went: Minneapolis Mayor Raymond Rybak; Gov. Dayton’s stadium point man Ted Mondale; Dayton’s chief of staff, Tina Smith; at least two of his commissioners in charge of budgets and revenues; lobbyists for the Vikings, including Vikings VP and CFO Steve Poppen; House GOP Majority Leader Kurt (I’m against it!) Zellers; House DFL Minority Leader Paul (I’m a liberal!) Thissen; several other senators and representatives not on the committee; staffers, secretaries and hangers-on galore. But not one member of the unwashed public or the Capitol press corps. And get this: There was another, adjacent meeting room, with a connecting door, so that if a quorum-inducing 4th member of the conference committee should inadvertently (or deliberately) walk in, one of the others could quickly slip through the door into the adjoining room – thus preserving the sanctity of the Open Meeting Laws! (Although, truly, there was no way for anyone to know how many of the committee members were present at any time as no outsider — meaning taxpayer or reporter — could see what was happening or be certain who was present.)
The Room 400 meeting, known as a “pre-conferencing” meeting — was not publicly scheduled or posted. But it is where the deal went down. The farcical and official conference committee meeting was scheduled in Room 15 of the Capitol for 9 p.m. and did not begin until 11. There you are, Mr and Mrs Taxpayer. Don’t blame us! You missed the public meeting!!!
The “pre-conferencing” — an obscenity intended to provide ass-cover — went on for several hours. All the while, the wise-guys going in and out cracked jokes about how it wasn’t a meeting; they were just talking about the fishing opener. Someone should have barged in and, if necessary, got themselves arrested to defend the public interest. But that didn’t happen: The state’s non-profit pubic interest groups, the “progressive” organizations still dizzy with glee at being FOD’s (friends of Dayton), the churches, the advocacy groups for the poor, the civil liberties and good-government groups — all have stayed silent during a lengthy, furtive, closed-door giveaway of hundreds of millions in scarce public dollars to the NFL and Zygi Stardust. None of them even made a peep when Dayton, who campaigned on a promise to keep his calendar available to the public, reneged on that promise – at exactly the time he started dancing with Zygi, (sometimes even neglecting other duties).
You can call it the Silence of the Sheep.
After the shenanigans in Room 400 finally were done, I went into the room, strewn with sandwich wrappers, empty coffee cups and abandoned notes on what had been worked out in the crowded meeting: I found no notes about how many walleyes you can have in possession. Instead, there were a series of numbers and calculations about sales tax rates and charter amendments and counter-offers and pro-stadium headcounts, including a list of DFL representatives, with 37 of their names highlighted in yellow markers — the ones who had pledged to vote YES on the stadium — and another three names circled in red, apparently as possible Yes votes. In the end, in the wee hours of this morning, 38 DFLers voted for the stadium– providing 54 percent of the votes for passage.
Other clues in the notes closely predicted the exact amount the Vikings would be asked to put up for the stadium and exactly what time the final House vote would come. Is there anyone, anywhere, who believes government should turn the keys over to monopoly businesses in secret meetings? If so, I will meet you at dawn, with revolvers.
Here’s what one vote tally sheet looked like:
By the way, this billion-for-billionaires Wilfare handout is a DFL deal, now. The Democrats own it, lock, stock and backroom deal.
After leaving Room 400, the legislators said they were going out to get something to eat. That was just one of the plethora of lies. It turned out the secret meeting just moved to an inner office in the trooper-protected warren of Gov. Dayton’s offices, where no one knows who attended an hours-long negotiation Mazola Party that lasted until, finally, late at night, they were ready to let the “public” part of the charade begin. There were reporters and photographers and lobbyists and grinning polls in the public meeting room when the “conference committee” finally convened. But other than a handful of insomniac Vikings fans, I couldn’t find one damn member of the general public.
As outrageous a travesty as this might be, it has become SOP at our Capitol, which is falling down. The only different thing about it — and this is a huge difference — is that this charade was not an attempt to fund public education or to reach a budget agreement between parties. This was a naked transfer of wealth — from the people to the plutocrats. And it was done — despite some 11th-hour lying by Sen. Julie Rosen, the chief author — entirely behind closed doors, from start to finish. Rosen herself admitted that the deal had been put together in secret at a press conference I attended in March, the one at which Dayton refused to respond to Ralph Nader’s criticism that the stadium deal was a “reverse Robin Hood.”
The Open Meeting laws, passed in the 1970s and which once gave Minnesota the reputation of having clean government, are as obsolete as a hat rack. They are so routinely flouted that the Center For Public Integrity gives the state a failing grade for openness in government and criticizes Minnesota’s increasingly secretive practices. Long story short: Yes, as we all learned in school, the corrupt days of smoke-filled rooms are gone. But that’s only because smoking is no longer permitted. Everything else is as corrupt as it used to be, and I don’t even rule out the bags of cash from the equation. There is no way to know what is going on, or whom is diddling who, and that’s the way that is preferred by politicians who have contempt for the public and the process that they are supposed to follow. And the Democrats, whose party pushed for Open Meeting laws in the 1970s, are as bad as the Republicans. Or, actually, worse.
Let me paint a picture of what it looked like this week at the Capitol, which it was under siege from raggedy-ass Occupy Minnesota protesters, no doubt would have quickly been cleared by security. Instead, it was under siege from purple-painted Vikings fans, few of whom seem to hold day jobs, who squatted on the Capitol steps, clustered in the Rotunda and sat around looking like tired Visigoths who had just discovered chairs after an exhausting year of sacking and plundering someone’s state treasury.
The Vikings arm-twisting operation was given a headquarters inside the building, near the old Supreme Court chambers. Operatives, lobbyists and Vikings officials infested the ante-rooms near the Senate chambers, standing in the shadows and summoning weak-spined lawmakers to one-on-one meetings where they were browbeaten, cajoled and whipped into shape. If I could have somehow gotten Jesus to come, I would have asked him to bring his whip. In 40 years of Capitol watching, I’ve never seen anything so nakedly corrupt.
Give credit to a handful of courageous, truth-telling lawmakers — most of them Republicans — who dared to say what was happening. I think it was Sen. Sean Nienow, a Republican from Cambridge, who openly discussed the lobbying pressure and the den of Vikings who had been given offices in the Capitol, and who said during Tuesday night’s voting that the public would be shocked if it “could see what is going on here.”
It’s time, Minnesota, to open your eyes.
The only thing open about it was the open contempt for the people who will pay for Mark Dayton’s absurdly named “People’s Stadium.