Zurik: Is IG's office dragging its feet on Horizon case?

Zurik: Is IG's office dragging its feet on Horizon case?
Jason Sciavicco
Jason Sciavicco
TV producers Roger Mitchell (left) and Anthony Gangi
TV producers Roger Mitchell (left) and Anthony Gangi

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Why don't state investigators have more interest in how Louisiana paid out $4.5 million of your money? It's a question being asked following significant findings from our "Easy Money" investigation of questionable payments to a production company.

Five months after Louisiana's inspector general launched an investigation into a production company, potential witnesses say they've heard nothing about a probe of the company, Horizon Entertainment, and how it was paid millions of your tax dollars in state film tax credits.

"It baffles me a little bit," says TV producer Anthony Gangi.

"I haven't been asked one question," says co-producer Roger Mitchell, noting that he knows no one else associated with Horizon who has been questioned, either.

"We know they probably move slower than we would like to," Mitchell says. "But that's a snail's pace, at best."

The state inspector general's office launched that probe in February.  Late last month, a significant date passed that will likely prevent any state agency from bringing charges if they find any wrongdoing.

Horizon received its last check from the state in June 2011 - four years ago.  The state has a four-year statute of limitations on criminal cases like this. So if any wrongdoing is uncovered, it would be too late for the state to press charges.

"The clock's ticking," says FOX 8 legal analyst .Joe Raspanti. "If there's going to be a prosecution here, it's going to be federal."

Raspanti says federal investigators still have time, though.  The statute of limitations under federal laws is five years. That gives the FBI and U.S. attorney's office almost one additional year to look into the case.

"You can't go to the feds with nickel-and-dime kind of cases," Raspanti tells us. "They usually don't even look at certain types of cases under six figures. This one certainly meets the threshold of the amount of money as the type of cases they would look at."

This case involves millions of questionable dollars handed out in state film tax credits. Our investigation showed production expenses Horizon claimed to have made.

Former Horizon employees say millions of dollars in reported expenses were never really incurred by the company. For example, Horizon claimed it spent $100,000 on a jib camera for a reality TV show based on the Saintsations. But employees say the camera was only used once for the show, and it just $300.

Horizon also claims it spent $65,000 on videotape for the Saintsations show. That includes $55,000 on what's called DVCPRO tape, a total of 2,200 cassettes. Back in February, we showed the enormity of that claim.

We also had serious questions about payments made to Horizon employees. They claim to the state that they paid editors and assistant editors about $318,000 for this project.

"If we had made that money, we'd probably be driving a Benz right now," said former Horizon editor John Beyer in an interview for our initial "Easy Money" reports.

Horizon claimed it spent $5 million on three episodes of "Saintsational" - a cost of $1.6 million per episode.  Compare that to another reality TV show, "Duck Dynasty" – its entire first season cost $293,000 an episode.

And that's just for one project under scrutiny.  We raised questions about spending on several more. All found that Horizon was paid a total of $4.5 million in state film tax credits. We still have questions about most of the money the company made.

"[Federal authorities] went to trial very recently on a film tax credit case," Raspanti notes. "And I believe it was for less money than this.  But this is certainly is not going to be stopped because it's not enough money.  They may choose not to do it for other reasons, but money's not going to be the reason."

Gangi and Mitchell worked on one project with Horizon and its owner, Jason Sciavicco.

"$4.4 million, gone," Gangi says. "That's our money.  That's what people are working hard for. You know, some people are working two jobs to pay taxes, to make him rich. And I don't think that's the kind of system that we should be in."

This year a grand jury found a trio of partners guilty for fraudulently collecting about $1 million in film tax credits.  In May, a Baton Rouge producer pleaded guilty to fraudulently collecting $161,000 in tax credits. Both were federal cases, and both cases involved far less money than Horizon received.

"I don't understand how, you know, a hundred-thousand or two-hundred thousand catches your attention and $4.4 million is not that big of a deal," Gangi says.

The inspector general has not closed his investigation.  Back in February, the IG's office told us they work with state and federal investigators, and several of the film tax credit cases prosecuted by the feds have involved the state inspector general.  So the IG could still bring potential findings on Horizon to the FBI or the U.S. attorney.

Gangi and Mitchell say taxpayers deserve an answer, deserve to know whether Horizon and Sciavicco did anything wrong.  The only way that can happen now is for federal investigators to show interest.

"This is our money," Gangi says. "Roger and I are working hard, you're working hard, so is everybody else, to pay him a salary that he doesn't deserve."

While we do know the FBI has not interviewed any witnesses, we don't know whether they have any interest in this case - the FBI keeps investigations confidential and never confirms or denies their existence.

Through his attorney, Sciavicco has repeatedly told us he and his company did nothing improper.

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