Judge Douglas Staskal criticized the head of Polynation Pictures before sentencing her for attacking prosecutors and judges in public statements she has made, while blaming her plight on antisemitism and “some sort of political conspiracy.” He said the sentence was a difficult decision to make for a woman with no prior criminal history, but he could not ignore the “complete arrogant and defiant” way in which she had denied responsility for her crime.
Filmmaker Wendy Weiner Runge sentenced to 10 years
LEE ROOD • Des Moines Register
Wendy Weiner Runge tried to appear contrite Tuesday morning as she faced sentencing for fraud, telling a judge she was truly sorry for deceiving the state while trying to make movies in Iowa.
But outside the Polk County courtroom, the Minnesota filmmaker has been defiant about her culpability in Iowa’s long-running film tax-incentive debacle — a move that got the 46-year-old mother of four a 10-year sentence in Mitchellville women’s prison.
Judge Douglas Staskal criticized the head of Polynation Pictures before sentencing her for attacking prosecutors and judges in public statements she has made, while blaming her plight on antisemitism and “some sort of political conspiracy.”
He said the sentence was a difficult decision to make for a woman with no prior criminal history, but he could not ignore the “complete arrogant and defiant” way in which she had denied responsility for her crime.
“This is a case in my judgment that calls out for the court to send a message to you and others who would engage in this kind of behavior that it’s not accepted, that it’s criminal and it will not be tolerated,” Staskal said.
Staskal’s comments jolted the novice filmmaker, who had showed little emotion during much of her week-and-a-half-long trial in February. She wept quietly Tuesday in a corner of the second-floor courtroom before being ushered out by her attorney, Matthew Whitaker.
Whitaker said he had not decided whether to appeal, adding: “We are still weighing our options.”
Runge, an Omaha native, decided to accept a plea agreement proferred by prosecutors after both sides rested in her February trial. The first-degree fraudulent practices charge to which she pleaded guilty did not apply to “The Scientist,” a 2008 film that received $1.85 million in state tax credits.
Rather, she admitted she made false statements to procure tax credits for two uncompleted movies called “Forever” and “Run” before Iowa’s film program was suspended in late 2009.
But Runge hedged when she appeared before Staskal to accept that deal in court, saying she was “directed to do so by Tom Wheeler,” head of the Iowa Film Office at the time. And in her ongoing blog about the case against her, she has repeatedly denied doing anything criminal and professed to be a victim of malicious prosecution and misconduct by state officials.
Staskal scolded her for playing the victim Tuesday, saying “there was nothing muddying the water” in her case and said she was neither sincere nor genuine.
Runge’s plea was the third in connection with the scandal that engulfed the fledgling film incentive program a year and a half ago, leading to the firings or resignations of six state economic development managers. Two of her former partners who were more cooperative with prosecutors received much lighter sentences Tuesday before Staskal.
Matthias Saunders, a pivotal player in Polynation’s deals with the state, received an up to 10-year suspended sentence for first-degree theft and two years probation, meaning he will stay out of prison if he complies with the terms of his release.
Saunders, 39, who has been living in Georgia, ran a company called Maximux Production Services, and profited from services his company provided that prosecutors said were highly inflated or didn’t exist.
Chase Brandau, 26, also of Minnesota, received a deferred sentencing for second-degree theft. He will be able to wipe the felony from his record if he successfully completes to two years of probation. All three will have to pay restitution to the state, the amounts of which have not yet been determined.
Thomas H. Miller, who prosecuted the Polynation partners on behalf of the Attorney General’s Office, said lack of remorse is not typically an overriding factor in such sentencings, but Runge showed none.
“We feel the dispositions were entirely appropriate and that justice was done,” he said. “Those who pleaded early received appropriate leniency.”