First criminal charges filed in film tax credit scandal

The Iowa Attorney General’s Office filed the first criminal charges in connection with the film tax credit scandal today.

Tom Wheeler, who stepped down in September as manager of the office, faces a charge of non-felonious misconduct in office. Wheeler, 41, is accused of failing to verify the eligibility of applicants for the state’s film tax credit program.

Also charged is Wendy Weiner Runge, who was executive producer of a 2008 film, “The Scientist.” Runge is charged with first degree theft and is accused of taking property belonging to the state of Iowa by unlawfully reporting inflated values on applications for tax credits.

UPDATE: A later version of the Des Moines Register story noted that charges have also been filed against “Matthias Alexander Saunders, another business owner and photography director; and three limited liability corporations tied to the movie [“The Scientist”].”

The Attorney General’s Office press statement is here, and on that page you can download documents related to the charges filed. Governor Chet Culver fired Wheeler shortly after the scandal broke last September. Iowa Department of Economic Development Director Mike Tramontina and deputy director Vincent Lintz both resigned.

It sounds as if Wheeler’s attorney will be Gordon Fischer, a name familiar to many Iowa Democrats. WHO-TV journalist Dave Price posted a statement from Fischer at the Price of Politics blog. Excerpt:

We are disappointed with the Attorney General’s decision to file criminal charges under the facts and circumstances of the situation as we know them. The state has decided to pursue a novel theory of criminal liability and it is our position that their decision is a mistake that is not supported by the facts or the law. However, because they have chosen this path, Tom’s focus must now necessarily shift from trying to help the state develop a functional, and economically beneficial, tax incentive program to defending against the criminal charges. Because of this shift in focus, we will need time to review the state’s charging documents before anyone can make specific comments about the facts underlying the Attorney General’s allegations.

UPDATE: The Des Moines Register published more comments from Wheeler’s advocate:

Gordon Fischer, whom Wheeler hired shortly after a multi-agency investigation began in September, said the state was making Wheeler the fall guy for poor oversight of a program overrun with applications.

“It’s really, really disappointing that they made the decision to try to criminalize this,” Fischer said. Wheeler, he said, “continually raised to his supervisors that the workload was very heavy (inside the firm office), and he was doing the best he could with limited resources.”

The Iowa legislature is likely to eliminate the state film tax credit this session. Last week Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson wrote a good column at InsiderIowa.com about why this program was flawed from the start:

An ad hoc cabal of arts boosters, state and local economic developers, impressionable legislators, and an uncritical me-too response to other states’ attempts in this extremely iffy arena led to what was proudly billed as half-price film making in Iowa.  That is, incredibly, 50 percent of qualifying in-state film-making expenditures could be claimed as state income tax credits.  And even if you didn’t generate enough economic activity to use the credits, you could sell them on the secondary market to some other Iowa company that wanted to lower their state taxes.

It was a fiasco on three fronts. First, the grant of a fully-refundable credit on 50 percent of costs was fiscally unsustainable, legislatively irresponsible, and set the stage for the documented abuses that occurred. Second, Iowa does not have the population, talent, geography, climate, visual amenities, and the whole array of agglomerations that would support a meaningful and sustainable year-round film industry. It never will. And third, the creative economy, as in arts and entertainment, will not be a leading driver of the Iowa economy because they all had it backwards:  arts and entertainment clusters of the kind described by Mr. [Richard] Florida [author of The Rise of the Creative Class] are a result of other economic growth not the cause.

Iowa does not have a Hollywood, Nashville, Taos, Santa Fe, Austin, Memphis, or even Branson to build from.  Iowa is farms, biotechnology research and development, manufacturing, finance and insurance, health care, and universities.  Those are Iowa’s key industries, and the creative content of many of those industries is quite high.  They are full of biologists, agronomists, actuaries, mathematicians, chemists, engineers, computer scientists, and other physical, medical, and social scientists.  That is Iowa’s creative economy, and that is the portion of the state that will drive most job growth and innovation in the next decade.  It has art and cultural centers, but no art and cultural centers that are driving regional or statewide growth in other industries.

The film tax credit will end up costing Iowa taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. It’s a costly reminder that consensus ideas aren’t always good ideas.  

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