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Dayton says Wilfs' infractions don't undercut stadium's benefits

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Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton visited northeastern Minnesota in 2012.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

Gov. Mark Dayton acknowledged Wednesday that the Wilf family's business dealings in New Jersey fail to meet the standards he would expect of a business partner in Minnesota. But he stopped short of saying that the Wilf controversy might scuttle the Vikings stadium deal.

"This goes way beyond acceptable business practice," Dayton said on The Daily Circuit. "It certainly undermines my confidence in their veracity and what they've presented to us and provided as the basis for working out the agreement we did. But the bottom line is, they still own the Vikings. ... so I don't think that part of it would be at risk."

A New Jersey judge found last week that Vikings owner Zygi Wilf and his family had committed fraud, civil racketeering and breach of contract in their real estate business dealings in that state. The Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority is conducting an investigation of the Wilfs, and final approval of the deal to build a new stadium is on hold pending its result.

"They haven't signed the agreement with the Vikings," Dayton said. "It's on hold, regrettably but necessarily, given the situation." 

Asked whether he's confident that the Wilf family has the integrity that a business partner of Minnesota should have, he replied that if what the judge found is "part of a pattern, absolutely not." 

But he added: "Do we want to keep the team? Do we want to build the stadium? Do we want Ryan Construction to do a $400 million development project right next to it that's going to bring 5,000 jobs to that dilapidated part of Minneapolis, and get all the further benefits that are going to come from that project?

"Or do we want to just walk away from it, and they'll move somewhere else?"

  The Wilfs, he pointed out, "are the owners of the Vikings. In the way of the economics of this country, they're the decision-makers, whether the team stays here or goes to Los Angeles, what happens. So that was a given. I didn't choose them, they didn't choose me, that's just reality." 

He described the Wilfs as "shrewd businessmen, and they've negotiated hard and we've negotiated hard. ... But what the judge in New Jersey said went way beyond aggressive business tactics and nudging the line. Civil racketeering, evil intent, dishonest financial reports, fraud. She really threw the book at them. 

"The only way to find out if they were honest in their representations in all respects to the Legislature and the people of Minnesota is to have this kind of careful review and investigative audit that Michele Kelm-Helgen announced yesterday."

Although the judge's ruling came in a lawsuit that had been covered in the media, Dayton said he had been unaware of the suit until the recent news broke. "I didn't know anything until the news reports came out with the judge's statement in New Jersey," he said.

But he said the revelations about the Wilfs had not shaken his view that the deal to build the stadium  will benefit Minnesota.

"I believe that we're better off with the team....We'll look back in 20 years and say yeah, we got a really good return on this effort."

Dayton also addressed the state's progress toward setting up a health insurance exchange under the federal Affordable Care Act. He said he is increasingly confident that Minnesota's exchange, called MNsure, will be ready for its mandated Oct. 1 launch.

"I am more confident," he said. "I think [MNsure] has done a superb job, with a dedicated staff. They're working literally around the clock, around the week."

"The computer system, of course, that's the big unknown. It's one thing to start a small business small and then grow it. We're starting a gigantic business on Day One. There will be challenges and glitches, inevitably. But ... I know we have the best leadership and I think we're putting together the best system of anywhere in the country."

Among the challenges, he said, are "the fervent efforts of some to destroy [President Obama's health reform] program." He cited attempts in other states and in Congress to "undermine it, to sabotage it, to make it fail."

For example,  in Missouri, "they passed a law. It's against the law for a public official to give advice. If you tell your grandmother, 'Here's how you get on the system, here's how you navigate it,' technically you're breaking the law in Missouri."

In Minnesota, by contrast, he has seen only "naysayers" so far, he said. "We'll see on Oct. 2 the chorus of 'I told you so,' etc."