E-mails show Iowa gov.'s interest in film office

AP News
Posted: Nov 09, 2009 4:20 PM

Iowa Gov. Chet Culver's office took a close interest in the state's film promotion efforts long before questions about spending and bookkeeping prompted the governor to freeze the program, e-mails obtained by The Associated Press indicate.

The 224 e-mails between the Department of Economic Development and governor's office from mid-2007 to fall 2009 show Culver's office was kept fully abreast of the Iowa Film Office's efforts to lure moviemakers to the state by offering them big tax breaks. The AP requested the communication through the state's open records law.

None of the e-mails were sent directly to Culver.

The governor's oversight of the film office has become an issue since allegations surfaced in September of inappropriate tax credits and sloppy bookkeeping. Culver fired the film office manager, Thomas Wheeler. Department of Economic Development director Michael Tramontina and a deputy director abruptly resigned.

Among the e-mails was a June 3 message to Culver aide Cindy Jones from film producer Doug James, noting the governor's availability to speak with him.

"I am thrilled to have the governor's ear, so to speak," James wrote. "Promise not to become a pest."

Another e-mail in 2007 from Economic Development official Shawn Rolland sought the governor's availability to talk with Terry Trimpe, a movie producer who was considering a production in McGregor.

"Gov will have time to talk with Terry," Culver aide Brad Anderson replied. Lauren Burt, the governor's event coordinator, notified Rolland that she would be sure Culver had background on Trimpe's plans.

"I will put this information into the brief for the governor and inform the staffers who will be with him in McGregor," Burt said in an e-mail to Rolland.

Despite the numerous e-mails, Culver spokesman Troy Price said the communications didn't deal with film office details.

"The vast majority of them did not deal with the operation of the film office, until this was brought to our attention," Price said. "After that, obviously we paid close attention."

However, e-mails showed there was interest in the film office's actions.

For example, one from October 2007 from Wheeler to Culver aide Brad Anderson offered details of spending on two movies, "Sugar" and "Duck Farm."

"Sugar spent about 750k (they have not completed their final spending report yet) and Duck Farm expects to spend about 600k," Wheeler wrote.

In May 2007, Culver aide Erin Andrew asked Wheeler for details of the film office tax incentive operation, and received a clear explanation.

"The investor pool will receive an Iowa income tax credit based on 25 percent of what the producer spends, and the production will receive an Iowa tax income tax credit based on 25 percent of what it spends," Wheeler wrote.

Among the items getting the most attention was the use of the state's tax credits to buy a couple of luxury vehicles that weren't used in any film production. That was made public in September, but the e-mails make it clear officials were aware of the issue earlier.

"Attached is a copy of a letter that will be sent electronically by COB today to a California film producer we believe abused the state's program," Tramontina wrote in a letter to Culver aide James Larew dated Aug. 6. COB refers to close of business. "We have been notified of another questionable claim that is under internal investigation. I'll advise your office as we proceed."

The e-mail notes that a producer had submitted a budget that included $10,000 for vehicle rentals, but the final claim was for a vehicle purchase of $67,783.

Culver said he fired Wheeler when the office's operation because clear to him, but some of the e-mails indicated the film office manager's standing was high not long before the issue became public.

Jones responded to one request in July, noting the manager's "name is Tom Wheeler and he is fantastic."