DES MOINES — Three people and three film companies have been charged in connection with Iowa’s problem-plagued film tax credit program. Investigators allege that more than $1.85 million in tax credits were fraudulently obtained for the movie “The Scientist.”
Those charged included the former Iowa Film Office director Thomas Wheeler, who was ousted from his job last year.
Complaints filed Monday in Polk County District Court in Des Moines show that Wheeler, 41, of Indianola, was charged with non-felonious misconduct in office, a serious misdemeanor.
Court documents allege Wheeler failed as director of the Iowa Film Office to verify the eligibility of an applicant for tax credits in December 2008. Wheeler could not be reached for comment Monday.
Two film producers have been charged with first-degree theft, a class C felony. They include Wendy Weiner Runge, 44, of St. Louis Park, Minn., and Matthias Alexander Saunders, 37, of Minneapolis.
Court documents allege they unlawfully inflated values on applications for tax credits and that the credits unlawfully obtained had a value of greater than $10,000.
The state’s tax credit program provides a 25 percent tax credit to investors and a 25 percent tax credit to producers on projects that spend at least $100,000 in Iowa.
“The expenditures claimed by the filmmakers were falsified and exaggerated far beyond their actual fair-market value,” according to court documents.
Prosecutors alleged there was evidence of double-billing and highly inflated expenditures — many that were for in-kind services or in-kind payments where no actual transactions took place.
The companies charged with first-degree theft included Polynation Pictures LLC and The Scientist LLC, both of Council Bluffs. Runge and Saunders are listed in court documents as owners of those companies.
The other company charged with first-degree theft was Maximus Production Services LLC of Minneapolis, of which court documents say Saunders was an owner.
Court records indicated Maximus Production Services filed claims for rental equipment that were significantly inflated, such as $225 each for a push broom, a hand broom, a metal rake, a pick axe and a sledge hammer, and two shovels for $450.
The invoices also included various sizes of step ladders that ranged from $900 each up to $1,125, and a 24-foot extension ladder reported to have been rented for $1,350.
After receiving tax-credit claims for “The Scientist,” prosecutors contended that Wheeler failed to conduct a meaningful review of the financial documents filed with the state for tax credit reimbursements. Records indicated Wheeler verified the project was shot in Council Bluffs although there was evidence he knew scenes were shot in Omaha and Bellevue, Neb.
The film office also allowed filmmakers to report “services in kind” such as marketing agreements or Web links as expenditures to qualify for the tax credit, court documents said.
In other instances, Wheeler allowed filmmakers to qualify expenditures with out-of-state vendors that passed through Iowa shell companies to qualify as expenditures made in Iowa, the documents allege.
The Iowa Attorney General’s office said the investigation into the matter continues, although an official would not comment on whether charges against others would be filed.
The film tax credit scandal led to the resignation last year of two top officials in the Iowa Department of Economic Development, which oversees the film office — former director Mike Tramontina and former deputy director Vince Lintz. Wheeler was dismissed from his position, and Gov. Chet Culver suspended the program when questions arose. The program later was resumed for previously approved projects.