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Thursday, January 20, 2011

St. Louis Park, MN - Injustice and Prosecutorial Abuse At The State Of Iowa

Ze’eva Rachel Weiner Runge

It has been said, “As goes Iowa, so goes the nation.” If so, it may be prudent to begin worrying about the direction of our country. Iowa is beginning to display some ominous signs of injustice and prosecutorial abuse, especially if you are trying to operate a business venture in there and are seen as an outsider.

Mrs. Wendy Weiner Runge (Ze’eva Rachel bas Chaya) is a Minnesota mom with strong links to her neighborhood community and four children in religious Jewish day schools. Blessed with uncommon talents, Wendy signed on to help produce a thoughtful film about modern spiritual values. Her job was to secure investor deposits and manage the production’s finances. Enjoying a pre-meltdown wave of local economic development initiatives, Wendy and her tiny production company received an invitation from the State of Iowa to make her movie in their state, in exchange for which the state would issue resalable state tax credits she could use to fund the production.

In August 2008, Wendy accepted the offer. The rules were clear. As executive producer, Wendy would submit the budget to the state office of filmmaking, where it would be reviewed and verified. Upon approval, the numbers would be accepted by officials of the Department of Economic Development, after which the state would issue tax credits for the equivalent amount. A win-win arrangement, this deal would bring capital to the film project and economic activity to Iowa.

Wendy and her company completed the movie, The Scientist, in November 2008. The tax credits were issued in December. Late in 2009, Wendy was informed that she was to be criminally charged for her participation in the state program.

Something had gone wrong.

The initial problem had nothing to do with Wendy. In September 2009, the government shut down the state’s film office. Despite commitments already made and numerous projects already under contract, the state apparently decided the program was not living up to its initial promise. The governor—already unpopular with an electorate that would soon turn him out of office—fired the entire Film Office staff and ordered all submissions and contracts reviewed and audited.

These contracts had already been thoroughly examined, audited, and passed by state officials. Wendy had submitted nothing for reimbursement without receiving prior authorization from the director of the tax-credit program. All her e-mail correspondence attests to that and is part of the public record. If a governor’s investigation was being launched, one would think it would be directed at the audit people in the Film Office.

But when government officials needed to find culpability for the less-than-satisfying results of the program, did they look to the statute to make sure it was good law? Did they look internally to see if Iowa had sufficient experience to understand the norms practiced in the motion-picture industry? Did they look at the performance of their own auditors and film officials (actually, they just fired them all)?

No. They filed criminal charges against Wendy Runge.

One needs to appreciate the gravity of this move. The attorney general needs no evidence to indict a citizen, just a conjecture and an available target. Wendy made herself such a target by doing nothing more than completing a successful project at Iowa’s invitation and under state officials’ supervision, seeking to run more such projects already under contract, and speaking up for herself and 22 other independent film companies when the governor wanted to release their financial data after having guaranteed them strict confidentiality. She sought and received a court injunction preventing that; and she became a target.

Wendy Runge, like Sholom Rubashkin before her, was an Iowa outsider. The Iowa attitude toward outsiders is stunning. Outsiders are welcome as long as they are enriching the state, but once something happens that disturbs the state’s serenity, they are subject to merciless oppression.

In the Rubashkin case, pressure brought to bear by advocacy groups led to a federal raid encouraged by a local judge. The ill-advised action did not result in any convictions on the anticipated charges for which the raid was conceived, but resulted in a successful business brought to its knees, the evaporation of an economic generator for an entire Iowa region, and an unfathomable 27-year prison sentence for a first-time, non-violent offender, a family man and community benefactor who committed an act under extraordinary circumstances that, while inexcusable, were part of an attempt to save his business from a crisis situation that would never have existed had it not been for the government raid.

In Wendy’s case, bureaucratic failure led to a hunt by the attorney general’s office for a suitable villain. While the state officials actually responsible for the program’s poor execution—Iowa insiders, all—were simply fired and later granted immunity from prosecution, outsider Wendy Runge was charged with felony theft, ongoing criminal conduct, and intent to defraud the state—all of which the state attorney is free from having to prove or justify until the day Wendy goes on trial.

In the meantime, she bears the burden of lining up a defense, which involves steep retainers, expensive depositions, and costly excursions to distant locations in an attempt to secure witnesses who will testify on her behalf, not to mention the loss of any possibility of employment for the duration of the ordeal and the human cost in sheer exhaustion, stress, and the inability to spend time with family. Is this what we mean by “innocent until proven guilty”?

Was Wendy indeed targeted because she was a Rubashkin-like outsider? No one can confirm that, obviously, but certain facts cannot be overlooked. At their first meeting after Wendy’s arrest, Deputy Attorney General Thomas H. Miller paused during questioning, leaned across the table toward her, and remarked, “So, how is the Rubashkin family doing?” His office’s research had evidently alerted him to Wendy’s Orthodox Jewish lifestyle, leading to a presumption of collegiality. (In fact, Wendy had never met any member of the Rubashkin family.)

Is it not reasonable to suggest that a prosecutor would have an easier time convincing an Iowa jury to find criminal intent in another Jewish interloper “looking to make a buck off hard-working Iowans” than to condemn a native son for failing to execute his duties as a state official? The bias seems to pervade Iowa’s culture. An earlier judge, after being informed that the pre-trial hearing he had scheduled coincided with Rosh Hashanah, replied, “Rosh Hashanah is not a recognized holiday in the State of Iowa.” Time after time, the judge has seen fit to schedule procedural hearings on Friday—against normal practice—despite being told repeatedly that Wendy must be home in Minneapolis (a four-hour drive from Des Moines) by sundown for the Jewish Sabbath.

Does the state believe Wendy is guilty? There is no way to know. The prosecutor has not allowed her attorney to see what they have against her, despite repeated requests and a reprimand from one judge, who found it appalling the way the state is handling the case. The prosecution regularly identifies witnesses and then drops them after forcing the defense to spend hours preparing for deposition. In one flagrant example, Wendy and her lawyer flew to California to depose a prosecution witness, only to be told upon arrival, “He’s not going to be there today. We thought we had a confirmation, but we don’t.” That alone cost Wendy $10,000.

The state attorney took the original charge and, in June 2010, added 14 more charges, leading to a potential jail sentence of 25 years. This conduct is an echo of the Rubashkin indictments in which one immigration charge and one bank charge were fragmented by superseding indictments into a total of 163 charges. The laws under which Wendy is being charged were designed for the prosecution of mafia kingpins and drug czars, to put them away for good. It is unconscionable for the attorney general to be using these statutes against a model citizen and mother of four in what veteran observers have said should at best be a civil case.

This power to threaten outrageous outcomes with little to no accountability should strike our hearts with alarm, just as it caused Wendy’s partners, who could have testified to her compliance with all state requirements, to turn state’s evidence against her in exchange for relief from exorbitant charges filed against them. One such partner actually perjured himself eight times in one hour during deposition. The state evidently wields sufficient power to cause their witnesses to try to say whatever they have to in order to save themselves.

Not every Iowan shares the state’s provincial mindset. In a December 11 entry on the website, one regular blogger had this to say about prosecution in the State of Iowa: “The U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa should be prosecuted for abuse of power. The owner of the Postville AgriProcessors packing plant, Sholom Rubashkin, was charged with 83 federal child-labor violations. The jury acquitted Rubashkin on every single one of the trumped-up child-labor charges. Rubashkin incurred huge legal bills to defend against spurious charges.

“Now we read (Dec. 5, 2010) the reason for the acquittal. The prosecutor promised the illegal immigrants that, in exchange for their testimony, they could remain in the United States and would then be entitled to bring their entire families with them from their native countries.

“Thank goodness the jury didn’t believe the witnesses. I can just imagine the conversation between the prosecutor and the potential witnesses. When the U.S. attorneys said the witnesses could stay in the United States, and also bring their entire families here, they responded by saying, ‘What do you want me to say on the witness stand?’

“The witnesses were terribly poor people with no opportunity in their own country and were being given a chance of a lifetime. They obviously did not understand our judicial system. Apparently, neither does the U.S. district attorney.”

The only way to put an end to this egregious behavior is to raise a public outcry. In that, you will be in good company. Prominent legal and religious figures including Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky, Rabbi Michel Twerski, and Professor Aaron Twerski have expressed their objections to what is happening in Iowa and have called upon the community to bring its proceedings to the attention of the nation.

As believers in justice and fair play, our duty remains to stand by our sister in her hour of need. Wendy’s youngest children have tearfully asked their mother, “Will you say goodbye to us, or will they just take you away?” Iowa’s prisons are not a safe place for a Jewish woman. We must open our hearts in prayer and in generosity, ensuring that Wendy can pay her legal bills, that she can cover her incidental expenses, and that she can keep her family from falling apart.

We must beseech the Al-mighty for an end to all our trials and tribulations, and for a clear sign that the dawning of a new era “ge’ulah sheleimah” is about to cancel all our oppression and dry away all our tears.

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