Was she a villain who sought to take advantage of an enticing state-run film program? Or was she a heroine who fought an abundance of ineptitude to make a movie in Iowa? Wendy Weiner Runge, a Minnesotan who faces the most serious charges to date stemming from the film tax credit fiasco that erupted in 2009, takes center stage this week as her trial begins in Polk County. Runge claims antisemitism is behind the charges.
Fate of accused filmmaker to be decided this week
Lee Rood • Des Moines Register
Was she a villain who sought to take advantage of an enticing state-run film program? Or was she a heroine who fought an abundance of ineptitude to make a movie in Iowa?
Wendy Weiner Runge, a Minnesotan who faces the most serious charges to date stemming from the film tax credit fiasco that erupted in 2009, takes center stage this week as her trial begins in Polk County.
Moved to Drake University, the trial will feature a mix of high-profile attorneys and witnesses who add another layer of drama to the already high-stakes case. Former Gov. Chet Culver is among those subpoenaed to testify.
The trial will test for the first time the evidence gathered in a costly investigation that has enveloped three state agencies for a year and a half. It will determine the fate of a first-time filmmaker who obtained $1.85 million in transferable tax credits. And it will provide clues about the fate of a handful of other defendants charged in the ongoing film scandal.
"It is an extraordinary learning experience for our students," said Russell Lovell, a Drake University law professor who negotiates to bring one trial each year to a Drake campus courtroom for the benefit of first-year law students.
The trial starts Monday with jury selection.
At stake for Runge, a 45-year-old mother of four, could be more than 25 years behind bars if she is convicted of first-degree theft and other felonies for allegedly inflating expenses for her 2008 science fiction film "The Scientist."
Three of her former partners in the film have reached deals to cooperate with prosecutors and are expected to be called to the stand during her trial.
One of those partners, Matthias Saunders, has already pleaded guilty to first-degree theft. Prosecutors allege he greatly inflated expenses for rental equipment used on the film, such as two brooms that cost $225, six road cones for another $1,350 and stepladders for $900 to $1,350.
Runge, executive producer of the film, also sought and won millions in tax credits for expenses provided "in-kind" - or at no cost - by Saunders' company, Maximus Productions.
But Runge has contended that those in-kind services - totaling $3.7 million - were approved by several people in state government, not just fired film chief Tom Wheeler. And none of the expenses claimed by her and other filmmakers were being formally audited, as happens in other states where film incentives are offered.
Runge and her lawyer did not return phone calls seeking comment. But in a blog where she has posted regularly and sought donations for her defense, Runge wrote that she routinely consulted attorneys and consultants "to make sure we were meeting the requirements of the program.
One of those consultants, Bettendorf tax credit broker Chad Witter, has since been charged with several felonies.
Some witnesses may break silence
The long-awaited trial at Drake's Middleton Center also comes with interesting political and religious back stories.
Runge's lawyer, Matthew Whitaker, is a well known political rival of Culver's. The Republican already has taken jabs at Culver, a Democrat, in court briefs related to the case and may try to call him to the witness stand.
A former U.S. attorney, Whitaker also applied to fill one of three vacant seats on the Iowa Supreme Court but didn't make the cut of finalists. Neither did the presiding judge in Runge's case, Douglas Staskal.
Also on the witness list is Mike Tramontina, the former head of the Iowa Department of Economic Development. He has not spoken publicly since he resigned over the scandal. Four other people in the department also lost their jobs.
Also subpoenaed was Wheeler, the former pitchman for the state's film program at IDED, who is accused of botching a flood of movie deals worth millions after lawmakers made Iowa's film incentives much more lucrative.
Reports of abuse of the tax credits provided ammunition during the fall governor's campaign for then-challenger and eventual winner Terry Branstad, a Republican, to accuse Culver of mismanaging the film incentive program.
Defendant sees anti-Semitism
Runge, an Orthodox Jew who grew up in Omaha, has told several media outlets she believes the charges brought against her were fueled somewhat by anti-Semitism.
The allegations stem in part from an exchange she said she had with Thomas H. Miller, a deputy attorney general, during depositions.
Runge claims Miller asked her whether she knew Sholom Rubashkin, who faced numerous charges stemming from the federal immigration raid at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville in 2008.
Runge said that when she replied that she did not, Miller asked, "How's the family doing?" She told the Intermountain Jewish News and other outlets that she inferred that to be a threat, given Rubashkin's fate. He was sentenced to 27 years in federal prison on financial fraud charges.
Runge also expressed her suspicions when the judge in her case first scheduled her trial on Rosh Hashanah.
She contacted at least two Jewish human rights organizations, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a California-based human rights group, and the Nebraska branch of the Anti-Defamation League, to see whether they could help her.
Alan Potash of the Anti-defamation League in Nebraska said his group would be monitoring news accounts of the trial, but he was not sure whether he would attend. A spokeswoman at the Wiesenthal Center was unaware of the case.
Angela Campbell, an attorney also present during Runge's exchange with Miller, said she did not hear what Runge has alleged publicly.
At the time Runge made those claims, she and her partners were the only filmmakers to be charged in the scandal.
Since then, three others have been charged: PBS star Dennis Brouse of Nebraska; Iowa City filmmaker Bruce Heppner Elgin; and Witter.
Runge and her former partners - including Witter, the broker - also are named in a civil lawsuit brought last year by Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller.
The lawsuit alleges the group conspired to defraud the state of film tax credits and seeks a minimum of $5.5 million in damages.
Seven key people in Iowa's film scandal
Some blamed the former governor directly for the widespread mismanagement and abuse uncovered over the last year and half, and his involvement became an unavoidable target in his failed bid for re-election. Culver suspended the film program almost immediately after abuses, including the purchase of two luxury vehicles kept by filmmakers, were discovered. But he and his administration failed to provide proper oversight over one of the state's largest economic development programs, critics said.
A longtime employee in state government, Tramontina resigned as director of the Iowa Department of Economic Development when it became apparent the abuses were damning to Culver and the department. His resignation was followed by the resignation of IDED second-in-charge Vince Lintz.
The film chief's job mushroomed in responsibility when Iowa lawmakers decided in 2007 to create, with little debate, one of the most lucrative tax credit programs for filmmaking in the country. Culver fired Wheeler shortly after Tramontina resigned. Three more IDED managers above Wheeler would be fired months later. A misdemeanor charge against him was upgraded this year to several felonies.
WENDY WEINER RUNGE
The head of a company called Polynation Pictures, Runge sang the praises of Iowa's tax credits until she was charged with felony theft. State prosecutors say she worked with partners to inflate costs and bilk the state out of tax credits, but she says state officials approved her film's expenses.
A Bettendorf tax-credit broker, Witter helped numerous filmmakers find investors in the tax credits to finance films. He also encouraged Runge and others to claim costs that others in the movie industry say were unorthodox or illegitimate.
BRUCE HEPPNER ELGIN
The Iowa filmmaker runs Iowa Film Production Services, which also goes by Storybench. He made several movies during the heyday of the enhanced tax credit program, hiring more native Iowans than any other. But he was charged criminally after state investigators found many of the expenses claimed for his movies "Splatter" and "The Offering" should not have qualified for state tax credits.
A PBS star from Nebraska, Brouse runs a production company called Changing Horses Productions that produces his syndicated show and related educational materials. He was awarded more tax credits than any other filmmaker but was charged criminally after seeking credits for expenses that cost his company nothing.