Film tax credit fallout continues

Mismanagement of Iowa’s state film tax credit program has led to more personnel changes at the Iowa Department of Economic Development this week. On Monday three longtime employees of the department were dismissed: general counsel Melanie Johnson, Jeff Rossate, and Amy Johnson. The Des Moines Register reported,

Rossate, as division administrator for business development, was the direct boss for film office manager Tom Wheeler. Johnson was Rossate’s No. 2 as the coordinator of the business development division.

The Des Moines Register reported on Saturday that e-mails showed those officials were privy to some of the worst problems facing the film program in the two months before it was suspended.

Amy Johnson had been serving as interim director of the film office before she was dismissed. IDED announced Tuesday that attorney Jessica Montana will be the new interim director of the film office. Montana has worked on IDED’s regulatory assistance team since 2007.

I wonder whether the latest dismissals will complicate the criminal case against Wheeler and two film producers. Wheeler was fired from IDED shortly after the scandal broke, and earlier this month the Iowa Attorney General’s Office charged him with non-felonious misconduct. His defense attorney will now be able to claim that Wheeler’s boss and others knew about problems with the film tax credit program.

No matter what happens with that case, I don’t envy IDED director Bret Mills, who needs to sort out this mess. Mike Tramontina resigned as IDED director when the film tax credit scandal broke, and Fred Hubbell served as interim director of the department until Governor Chet Culver appointed Mills in late December. The Iowa Senate confirmed Mills unanimously this month.

Here’s hoping state legislators will put the film tax credit program out of its misery. A bill is pending to suspend the tax credit until July 2011, but the program was ill-conceived from the beginning and doesn’t deserve to be revived. There are a lot better ways for the state to spend up to $50 million a year.

Meanwhile, the Des Moines Register reports today,

Eleven film companies are suing Iowa’s Department of Economic Development, saying they believe certain documents that have not been released since the scandal broke – including expenses and budgets they reported to the state – should be kept confidential.

Scott Brennan, an attorney for the film companies, said Tuesday there is a difference between public curiosity and public interest in the ongoing probe. His clients believe they were guaranteed “by contract and by statute” that certain trade secrets would be kept secret.

The attorney general’s office and the Register argue that the records – first requested last fall – are public under state law and should remain so because they are of significant public interest. The two sides met in court for the first time Tuesday.

According to a brief filed Tuesday by Michael Giudicessi, the newspaper’s lawyer, “Whether evidenced by the very requests of the Register and other news organizations for access, the suspension of the film tax credit program by the governor’s office, the conducting of an independent audit by the department, the vast and increasing amount of taxpayer dollars involved or the ongoing terminations … it is clear that the public interest is not served by any degree of continuing secrecy.”

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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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Year in review: Iowa politics in 2009 (part 2)

Following up on my review of news from the first half of last year, I’ve posted links to Bleeding Heartland’s coverage of Iowa politics from July through December 2009 after the jump.

Hot topics on this blog during the second half of the year included the governor’s race, the special election in Iowa House district 90, candidates announcing plans to run for the state legislature next year, the growing number of Republicans ready to challenge Representative Leonard Boswell, state budget constraints, and a scandal involving the tax credit for film-making.

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Fred Hubbell to serve as interim director of IDED

Governor Chet Culver announced on Tuesday that he has appointed Fred Hubbell to serve as interim director of the Iowa Department of Economic Development (IDED). Hubbell will start working there on October 5. He will continue to serve on the Power Fund board, only he will now be IDED’s representative on that body. Last month the rumor mill floated Hubbell’s name as a possible challenger to Senator Chuck Grassley, but he said he was not interested in running for Senate.

Culver picked Joe O’Hern, deputy director at the Iowa Finance Authority, to be the new interim deputy director at IDED, focusing on IDED’s flood recovery efforts. This press release from the governor’s office contains more background on Hubbell and O’Hern.

Culver spoke about the abuse of Iowa’s film tax credit program during a press conference in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday:

When information was first brought to my attention last week about Iowa’s film tax credit program, I was troubled. But as we began our investigation into this program, and more information has come to light, frankly, I am outraged – not only that a program involving millions of Iowa tax dollars was so mismanaged but that some companies were taking advantage of this situation.

This problem first came to my attention last week when I was traveling on Tuesday with former director Tramontina. At that time, I asked him to prepare for me a memo outlining problems with the program. And, after receiving that memo, I took immediate steps to protect the taxpayers of Iowa. […]

These actions are intended to protect the best interest of Iowans, and not to harm the growing film and television industry in our state. This program should continue only after we have the controls, oversight, and due diligence in place to assure that it operates properly.

But, while there were clearly not the controls and oversight in place at the Iowa Film Office, we need to make sure that the film and TV productions in our state are following the rules.

For example, projects must have commitments for at least 50% of their funding before even applying for assistance under the program.

In addition, projects are not to receive tax credits until after their work is complete and they have submitted invoices of qualified expenses.

And, we expect film and television productions to obey Iowa’s labor laws – which mean people get paid for the work they do. That does not mean they wait until after their tax credit has been approved.

Iowans will not be taken for suckers. While we need to make changes to strengthen management of this program, we are not going to be taken advantage of – and if we are, we are going to claw back and make sure any money wrongfully provided is returned.

If something good can come out of this scandal, I hope that all of Iowa’s tax credit programs will now receive greater scrutiny. Even if there are no other tax credits being abused, we may not be getting our money’s worth for all of these programs. In a weak economy that puts pressure on state revenues, wasteful tax credits need to be on the chopping block along with government spending.

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