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State of Iowa Set to Imprison Jewish Mother

By Rabbi Chaim Goldberger and Gila Julie Levi

It has been said, “As goes Iowa, so goes the nation.” If so, it’s time to really worry about the direction of our country. Iowa is continuing to display ominous signs of injustice and prosecutorial abuse, especially if someone is trying to operate a business venture in their state and is seen as an outsider in any way.

Mrs. Wendy Weiner Runge (Ze’eva Rochel bas Chaya), a frum Minnesota mom of four, has been sentenced to ten years in an Iowa state prison. This is the same state that put Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin in prison for 27 years.

On the pshat level, in February 2011, Runge was found guilty of one count of improperly filling out an application form for a film industry project. On the remez level, she’s a scapegoat for the State of Iowa’s failed film incentive program. And if $40,000 is not raised by December 31, 2011 so she can continue to pay her lawyers and cover the costs for her defense, she will need to give up her two-year battle and report to jail.

What Happened

In 2008, 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, a job that allowed her to utilize her talent with numbers and love of working with people. 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 there, in exchange for which the State would issue resalable state tax credits she could use to fund the production.

In August of that year, 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 by state government officials. 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 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 the State officials. Wendy had submitted nothing for reimbursement without receiving prior authorization from the director of the tax credit program. All her email 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 state Film Office.

But when the government needed to find culpability for the less-than-satisfying results of their 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.

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.

Oh, and one more thing. Wendy Runge, like Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin before her, was an Iowa outsider.

The Iowa attitude toward outsiders is mindboggling. 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 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 – all Iowa insiders – 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.

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 Tom Miller paused during questioning, leaned across the table toward her, and remarked, “So, how is the Rubashkin family doing?” Their research had evidently alerted them to Wendy’s Orthodox Jewish lifestyle, leading to a presumption of collegiality. (In fact, Wendy had never met any member of the Rubashkin family.)

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, cover her incidental expenses, and keep her family from falling apart.

We must beseech the Almighty for an end to all our trials and tribulations, and for a clear sign that the dawning of a new era – the era of the Ge’ulah Shlemah – is about to cancel all our oppression and dry away all our tears.


To donate to Wendy Runge’s defense fund, please send checks payable to Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund for Mrs. Runge, Kenesseth Israel Congregation, 4330 West 28th Street, Minneapolis, MN 55416.

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