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Iowa film scandal at center of Drake Law's First-Year Trial Practicum

February 8, 2011
The First-Year Trial Practicum at the Drake Law School is an experience unique in all legal education. Drake is the only law school in the country that shifts all first-year classes to an actual courtroom on campus where students view an actual state or federal trial as if in an educational laboratory. 

Past trials have included civil trials and criminal cases in which charges ranged from burglary to first-degree murder. The case presented on Drake's campus this year is of particular interest for its subject matter and the public attention it has already received.

The case, State of Iowa vs. Wendy Weiner Runge, centers around Iowa's film tax credit that was in place in 2008 to encourage filmmakers to choose locations in Iowa, thus promoting the film industry in Iowa and encouraging job creation.

When the state of Iowa initiated the tax credit in 2007, the response was overwhelming. More than 150 projects applied for funding under the project, considered one of the most aggressive tax incentives in the country at the time.

Scandal rocked the program, however, drawing national attention and resulting in the elimination of the tax credits in 2009 and the resignation or firing of several Iowa officials for alleged mismanagement. In addition, several filmmakers are accused of fraudulently obtaining tax credits and now face criminal charges in Iowa.

Two individuals have already pleaded guilty to felony theft and are cooperating with prosecutors in a case against their former partner, Wendy Weiner Runge, producer of "The Scientist," which was filmed in Iowa in 2008.

Runge, executive producer of "The Scientist," is one of a trio of filmmakers from Minnesota charged with allegedly inflating production costs while seeking lucrative state tax credits for personal gain. She is charged with theft, fraudulent practice and ongoing criminal conduct. Each charge is a felony.

"The Trial Practicum is the laboratory that makes the first-year
classroom come alive," says Professor Russell Lovell, director of the
Trial Practicum program. "It is one thing to study criminal law or read
about great jury trials, but to see an actual jury trial in its
entirety, to see the lawyers and judges in role, and to see the large
responsibility our justice system accords to lay jurors in deciding the
case, is an incredible experiential educational experience."

Jury selection in the case began on Monday. District Judge Douglas Staskel presides over the case and Thomas Henry Miller (not related to Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller) and Jeffrey Thompson, special prosecutors from the Iowa Attorney General's Office, represent the state. Former U.S. Attorney Matthew Whitaker and Janelle Niebuhr are representing Runge.

Students will be present during every phase of a trial, from jury selection to jury verdict, and will participate in small group discussions, lectures, practice panels and debriefings with attorneys, judge and jurors. This event is possible only with the active cooperation of the judiciary, law enforcement, and the bar.