Filmmaker doesn’t deserve prison

 By Rabbi Chaim Goldberger

The people of Iowa must be very proud of their Department of Justice this week. Its successful prosecution of film producer and notorious thief Wendy Weiner Runge culminates this week in her incarceration in the Mitchellville women’s prison for high crimes of fraud and conspiracy against the state.

There is only one problem. Runge is not a thief. She committed no act of fraud. She is guilty of no act of conspiracy, and she is not a well-known movie producer. And her only notoriety comes from the treatment she has received in the local media, who decided to paint her as the brains behind a treasury-gouging crime scheme long before she appeared in any court to determine if any of the above assumptions bore any resemblance to the truth.

The media can hardly be blamed. They merely swallowed whole the Iowa attorney general’s premise that Runge was a criminal mastermind who orchestrated a sinister campaign to wrest millions of dollars from an unsuspecting Iowa film commission in order to pad her pockets and those of her villainous partners. After all, no prosecutor charges an individual with 15 felony counts of financial fraud and conspiracy if there is nothing there, right? Or do they?

Let’s take a look at some facts. Before January 2007, Wendy Runge had never stepped foot onto a movie set. A Minnesota housewife and mother, busy with family and community obligations, she worked at intervals with a variety of nonprofits and commercial ventures in publicity and development, areas in which she has some talent.

Wendy Weiner-Runge in happier times.

Wendy Weiner-Runge in happier times.

In the course of her work, she came across a small group of film producers who were seeking an organized, competent and thoughtful person to act as executive producer for a film project they had in mind. She agreed, figuring she would learn about the business as she went.

Iowa offered her tiny company a tempting deal. “Make your movie here,” she was told, “and we will give you 50 percent tax credits to help fund your production.” Iowa was close to home and the incentives were generous. Runge agreed.

The production company she joined, Polynation Pictures, made the movie “The Scientist” in Council Bluffs. Elected officials expressed pleasure over the economic activity Runge was bringing to western Iowa.

A novice at producing movies, she did her work carefully, checking and confirming everything she did with those more experienced than she — her attorneys, Iowa Film Commissioner Tom Wheeler and her filmmaking partners, Zach LeBeau, Chase Brandau, and Matthias Saunders.

Back in Des Moines, something was going wrong. The program was costing far more than the Legislature had anticipated. Tom Wheeler was called to account. His explanation? “I was overloaded with applications and did not get enough help from the Department of Economic Development.”

Yet, rather than admit that his office was simply unprepared for the influx of activity, that the state had overextended its ability to make good on its generous promises, and that the tax credit legislation had been written poorly with too many ends left open, the state went looking for culprits — it being much easier to blame a hemorrhage on greedy filmmakers than to accept responsibility for a poorly-designed, improperly run program.

The state had devised the program and had invited filmmakers to use it. Now, Attorney General Tom Miller demonstrated the state’s gratitude by leveling multiple charges against, among others, the partners who made “The Scientist.”

Was there some inflation of invoices? Yes. LeBeau, Brandau and Saunders pleaded guilty to theft and were given fines and probation. Did Wheeler mislead filmmakers who sought confirmation that their invoices were within the state guidelines? Yes. He was sentenced to a fine and to time served.

What about Runge? Sure, she used some pretty jocular language in one or two emails. She was certainly guilty of being a novice in a roughneck industry and of trusting her experienced partners and a state official.

But Runge was no criminal mastermind.

Not one of the fraud, conspiracy and theft charges against her was proven, and every one of them was dismissed. Runge is heading to jail over one transgression: She made an amendment to an application form for future film projects, after the deadline for doing so had passed. She had filed the form as a favor to a California filmmaker and was trying, a little late, to correct one error she had made in the application. Tom Wheeler had told her it would be OK for her to make the amendment and, based on that assurance, she did it.

That is the entirety of Runge’s offense.

Where in this great nation is a nonviolent offender with no criminal history who is a married mother of four and a longtime member of a close-knit community sent to prison for up to 10 years for making a clerical adjustment with the approval of the appropriate government commissioner and for which she received no financial gain?

In Iowa, apparently.

If you ask District Judge Douglas Staskal, he will tell you he ordered the astonishing sentence because Runge exhibited a lack of remorse. Did she have some kind of outburst in the courtroom? No, in fact Runge very clearly expressed remorse before the court on the day of her sentencing, as indicated in the public record.

According to the judge, her lack of remorse occurred on her personal blog. But, in fact, a reading of the entire blog will yield no discussion whatsoever about her improperly amended state application form, the only issue rightly before the court. It appears as if the court was looking for Runge to show remorse over having been that criminal mastermind the state initially thought she was, regardless of the inconvenient fact that the justice system has never been able to establish that she is anything more than a Minnesota mom with no malicious intent who probably bit off a little more than she could chew and definitely followed some bad advice given to her by the state itself.

Runge has suffered enough. The state invited her to do business in Iowa, only to turn around and slap her with unsupportable criminal allegations as a way of averting attention from its own negligence. The state had one of its top officials misrepresent an illegal act as a legal one. A judge has set up an unjust disparity between Runge’s punishment and that of every other defendant caught up in this matter.

 Let us turn the tide. Let each person who senses the injustice being perpetuated here contact the governor or the attorney general and tell them to stop it.

Had it not been for the state’s mismanagement of a very good program, she would deserve to be thanked. Today she is broke, having earned no more than $46,000 for two years of hard work on a difficult project. She has a six-figure debt, a husband who just lost his job and young children who need her attention.

Going to prison now is just not what she deserves. Let the state of Iowa act with immediacy to undo this unprecedented travesty of justice.

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