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Hollywood in Iowa -- the tax credit fiasco

A ghost player recreating the role of Chicago White Sox legend Shoeless Joe Jackson plays ball with a young tourist at the baseball diamond created for the 1989 motion picture Field of Dreams

Ah, Iowa, land of corn -- and now, movie-making corruption.

The Farm Belt is learning a painful lesson these days in the glitzy, star-studded world of Hollywood's accounting practices: Like in the baseball movie "Field of Dreams," if you build it, they will come ... and may take your tax dollars to buy things you don't want to pay for.

On Monday, Iowa Gov. Chet Culver asked the state's auditor office, the state Department of Revenue and Iowa Atty. Gen. Tom Miller to join the investigation into the state's film tax-credit program, amid reports of flawed oversight and accounting procedures.

The growing scandal over Iowa's film tax-credit -- officially called the Film, Television and Video Project Promotion Program -- has already seen at least two politicos fall. Mike Tramontina, the director of the state Department of Economic Development -- which administered the program -- resigned from his post Friday. And today, Thomas Wheeler, the manager of the state's film office was fired.

The program is the nation's most generous, with a rebate to filmmakers of up to 50% of what they spend.

But Culver called a timeout last week, suspending the program and putting a halt on all reimbursements to film production companies. The reason: An internal audit found a number of, well, discrepancies, including using tax credits to pay for luxury vehicles that filmmakers never used in their movies.

I can just hear the film execs now: "Aren't all farmers rich because of ethanol? We really thought that Mercedes would bring authenticity to the shoot."

The press release cuts to the chase.

The governor's halt of the program has the pro-film folks in the Hawkeye state freaked out, with calls from the Iowa Motion Picture Assn. to reinstate the program. According to IMPA -- and yes, there really is such a thing -- there are four films that were shot in Des Moines and one in Council Bluffs that are all owed rebates.

And how much is this going to cost the state?  A recent story in the Des Moines Register reports that a last-minute rush by film producers could cost the state up to $300 million.

Ouch.

--P.J. Huffstutter

Photo: A "ghost player" recreating the role of Chicago White Sox legend Shoeless Joe Jackson plays ball with a young tourist at the baseball diamond created for the 1989 motion picture "Field of Dreams." Credit: Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images

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Stronger controls need to be in place. The State of Iowa will get it done. Hopefully it doesn't take to long. My film is ready to apply for Iowa tax credits.


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About the Columnist
A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm has served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four. Read more.
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