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Iowa's film credit program: what we know now

August 29, 2011

We have completed the first two weeks of the trial of Former Iowa Film Office Director Tom Wheeler on felony misconduct in office charges. While there has been no evidence presented that Mr. Wheeler personally profited from the program, the trial has provided useful information on the way the program was enacted and run. A few things we've gotten out of the trial:

- The program as enacted was was poorly defined and outlined, leaving huge responsibility in the hands of the executive branch personnel running it.

- The legislature provided no additional staff and almost no funds to run the program, which had no theoretical or practical cap on the amount of taxpayer money that could be committed.

- The legislation had no provision that would keep the funds from being disbursed in the absence of a system of controls and review of the program.

- This left the program in the hands of a single mid-level state employee, Mr. Wheeler, whose background was in selling Iowa to filmmakers -- not in the administration of a multi-million dollar spending program.

- The man who originally hired Mr. Wheeler, before the tax credits were enacted, tesfied that Mr. Wheeler was unfit for the new responsibilities he was given under the program.

- Mr. Wheeler's supervisor at the Department of Economic Development required no regular oversight of the program until he found out that it was being used to buy luxury cars for film people -- well over a year after the program started.

- Other executive branch agencies, including the Department of Revenue, saw bits of the problem as the overmatched Film Office struggled to give away our money, but nobody ever felt compelled to sound the alarm.

- There's no evidence that any of the 143 legislators who voted for the program ever exercised their oversight responsibilities to see that the funds were being spent responsibly until the program was near collapse.

Whatever the outcome of the trial to Mr. Wheeler, the trial has documented an enormous failure on the part of Iowa's political leadership, both legislative and executive. Only Mr. Wheeler gets to undergo the nightmare of felony prosecution; the worst that happens to the rest of the bunch is new jobs, and that only for some of them.

What we've seen certainly doesn't make me trust them to spend more of my money in the name of Economic Development, or much of anything else.

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