WHEN Wendy Weiner Runge set out to make an inspirational science fiction film about love, life and loss, the last thing she ever expected was to be charged with a felony. She certainly never thought that anti-Semitism could possibly be behind it.
Runge, a 45-year-old Orthodox Jewish mother of four from Minneapolis, is facing a dozen criminal charges brought against her by the State of Iowa. If found guilty, she could be sent to prison for 25 years.
She has been charged with theft of tax credits extended to her and to 25 other filmmakers who participated in incentives offered by Iowa to lure the film industry to that state.
In December, 2008, Runge, executive producer of the award-winning science fiction film, “The Scientist,” set up shop in Council Bluffs, Iowa, adjacent to and just across the state line from her hometown of Omaha, Neb. The convenience of staying at “the best kosher bed and breakfast in the world — my parents’ house” was the icing on the cake for Runge as she accepted Iowa’s new Film Office’s incentive to make a film there.
The Iowa come-ons, Runge told the Intermountain Jewish News, were “the best financial incentives in the world.” The state offered 50% in transferable tax credits for expenditures in the state. “That’s huge!” she said.
A video which appears on You Tube, filmed on Oct. 21, 2008 in Dubuque, Iowa, shows Tom Wheeler, then director of the Iowa Film Office, explaining and boasting about the 50% transferable tax credits (25% to a film’s producer and 25% to the investor), stating that it is the highest incentive offered by any state in the nation. Read the related IJN editorial
Since most producers and investors would be from outside Iowa, they were able to sell the tax credits for cash to Iowa taxpayers, who paid 90 cents on the dollar for them.
This dream scenario attracted 26 filmmakers, including Wendy Weiner Runge.
Runge applied for the incentives and says she was extremely meticulous as she submitted her expenses to the state for approval, running everything past the Iowa Film Office, her attorneys and accountants. She says she carefully dotted every “I” and crossed every “t.”
Every expense she submitted was approved, and the tax credits were issued. She kept documentation of every transaction and approval.
Runge completed her film in December, 2008.
IN September, 2009, the Iowa Film Office was shut down and its director Tom Wheeler was charged with civil misconduct. Everyone in that office either resigned or was terminated.
In February, 2010, Runge and two colleagues from her film company were indicted with inflating the cost of items such as ladders and shovels, while the budget of the film quadrupled from $800,000 to $2.5 million.
Runge denies any wrongdoing, and was dumbfounded by the charges. “It literally came out of nowhere,” she said, “like a lightning bolt.” Her response was, “You audited everything. You approved everything.”
The higher-than-budgeted expenditures, according to Runge, were largely due to the increased cost of making a film in Council Bluffs, Iowa, as compared to, say, Los Angeles. Most of the items needed for the production were rented in a package deal over a 45-day period.
“Council Bluffs, Iowa, is very far from a Hollywood-caliber rental facility. This is standard operating procedure for film production. If we were to buy an item, we would have to arranage for our crew to stay on the payroll for extra days or weeks to sell or donate all the items,” Runge explained in an article which appeared in The Jewish Star, a Long Island newspaper.
Runge likened it to “going camping in the middle of nowhere — you have to take with you everything you will need.”
If a producer does not have all the anticipated equipment over the entire production period, production must shut down when a necessary item is discovered missing. “The most expensive thing to do is to shut down a film shoot.”
She said that some of the state’s charges against her are based on proposals yet to be approved, and that charges related to in-kind services were expressly approved by the film commissioner. Other charges, she said, are fabrications.
WENDY Weiner Runge says she never looked at the world through the prism of anti-Semitism. But when she was charged in February, she discovered that she was the only filmmaker who had accessed the Iowa incentives to be charged.
She wondered why and contacted the regional ADL office in Omaha, headed by Alan Potash, who told the IJN, “We are looking into this situation as we do all complaints, and have not yet formed any opinions.”
Then, Runge says that during a deposition, with both her attorney and a court reporter in the room, while the tape was not rolling, Thomas H. Miller, an Iowa deputy attorney general, asked whether she knew Sholom Rubashkin, at the center of the notorious case in Iowa.
When Runge replied that she did not, Miller, according to Runge, leaned over and asked, “How’s the family doing?”
Shocked, she replied that she wouldn’t know Sholom Rubashkin if he walked into the room. Considering the fate of Rubashkin in Iowa, Runge says, “I inferred that to be a threat.”
Deputy Attorney General Thomas H. Miller [Iowa’s attorney general is named Thomas J. Miller and is no relation to the deputy] denied to the IJN any mention of Sholom Rubashkin to Runge during the deposition.
The article in The Jewish Star quoted a letter sent to Runge’s attorney in which Thomas H. Miller said that his comments were, “perhaps, inadvertently mischaracterized.”
He explained that during a conversation between Runge, her lawyer and Thomas H. Miller’s assistant, Max Miller [also no relation to the attorneys general], it had come up that her husband worked in the kosher food industry. Miller asked if Runge’s husband had dealt with Agriprocessors.
Runge told the IJN that Max Miller was not present at the time, and that Thomas H. Miller said to her, “I understand your husband owns a kosher deli.”
Runge says that she told him this is not true, that her husband works for a food distribution company. That’s when Thomas H. Miller leaned over and asked, “How is the family doing?”
In his letter to Runge’s attorney, Deputy Attorney General Thomas H. Miller wrote, “Because it somewhat surprised me, I clearly recall her responding, ‘I wouldn’t know Rubashkin if he walked into this room.
“Please note that it was Ms. Weiner, not I, who mentioned Rabbi Rubashkin. I do acknowledge, however, that I had mentioned Agriprocessors.”
He concluded the letter saying he would be more careful, according to The Jewish Star.
Deputy Attorney General Miller told the IJN that the State of Iowa “will not file any charges based on anyone’s religion.”
He also said that several other filmmakers who participated in the Iowa incentives were currently under investigation, though none have been charged.
He declined to comment on the specific charges brought against Runge.
Runge says both the ADL and the Wiesenthal Center expressed concern over Miller’s alleged comments.
Judge Richard Blane scheduled Runge’s pretrial hearing for Thursday, Sept. 9, the first day of Rosh Hashanah.
When Runge’s attorney informed Blane of the date conflict and that Runge would be unable to attend, Blane responded that Rosh Hashanah is not a holiday recognized by the State of Iowa, and that the pretrial date would stand.
“My attorney was shocked,” she says.
ADL’s Potash said “We have written a letter addressing the pre-trial hearing on Rosh Hashanah.”
The Simon Wiesenthal Center did not comment.
Asked by the IJN what she will do if the pretrial date is not changed, Runge replies, “I have to ask a lot of questions of my rabbis on how to facilitate this.”
Deputy Attorney General Thomas H. Miller said he had nothing to do with the pretrial hearing date and that he would have no objection to rescheduling the hearing.
FROM a purely artistic viewpoint, Wendy Weiner Runge’s film “The Scientist” is a success.
“It’s a low budget, independent film about a brilliant, reclusive physicist who creates an infinite-energy machine in his basement that ultimately changes his life and all those around him.” Runge calls it a story of “lost love.”
The film was directed by Zach LeBeau.
“The Scientist” has been shown at film festivals, winning best science fiction at the World Fest-Houston International Film Festival, and best screenplay at the SINY Film Festival. However, the film cannot be released theatrically “because the film company being charged with theft holds up the title,” Runge says.
As Runge faces the charges that could put her in prison for 25 years, she believes that, as the only filmmaker who was charged with criminal activity, out of 26 who availed themselves of the Iowa tax credit incentives, she is being used as a scapegoat by the state after it created such a liberal incentive program.
Runge is trying to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for her criminal defense. She plans to bring her fundraising efforts — which are being speerheaded by Rabbi Chaim Goldberger, spiritual leader of Knesseth Israel in St. Louis Park, Minn. — to the Denver area in the near future.
Despite the shock of being charged and despair at the prospect of being convicted and sentenced, Runge’s spirits are buoyed by “tremendous support of my family, friends and business associates,” and by her religious faith.
She tells the IJN that she feels that “G-d has opened doors that I hoped would open” as she has struggled through her defense efforts.
For those reasons, as well as her contention that she did nothing illegal, Wendy Weiner Runge believes she will prevail and come out stronger on the other end.
“Thank G-d, we’re going to get through this, and continue to produce great, uplifting films.”
Copyright © 2010 by the Intermountain Jewish News