When Tracy Bennett scored a role in a motion picture starring the country music star Trace Adkins, it was by just about any measure a big break. Bennett had shot still photos on the sets of Hollywood blockbusters, but he had virtually no acting experience.

So it was seemingly out of nowhere that Bennett vaulted into a substantial role opposite a major performing artist.

But when it came to the movie business on Maui, where the film is being shot, Bennett did have at least one leg up over more experienced local actors: Bennett is also the Maui film commissioner, in charge of helping films get county, state and federal permits to shoot on the island.

Sharks, such as this scalloped hammerhead shown in a NOAA photo, play a central role in a film featuring Maui’s film commissioner, Tracy Bennett. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

It’s not clear whether Bennett violated Maui ethics laws that generally prohibit state officials from working in industries they regulate, and Maui county officials either didn’t return calls and emails or declined to comment.

But the union that represents actors, SAG-AFTRA, is looking into the matter.

“SAG-AFTRA does not involve itself in casting decisions except to enforce the terms of our contract, which does require that Producers give preference in hiring to professional performers,” a SAG-AFTRA spokesperson said in a statement. “We are reviewing the Producer’s compliance and will pursue claims as necessary if these provisions were violated.”

She declined to say whether Bennett is a SAG-AFTRA member, explaining that the union doesn’t comment on an individual’s membership status.

Bennett, who already earns more than $80,000 annually from his government job, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Neither did the film’s producer, Daemon Hillin, director Justin Lee or co-producer Amy Covell.

Beyond union issues, there’s one involving the Maui Ethics Code, which is part of the county charter. As an overarching policy, the code says that appointed officers and employees like Bennett must “demonstrate by their example the highest standards of ethical conduct to the end that the public may justifiably have trust and confidence in the integrity of government.”

Tracy Bennett Maui Film Commissioner
Maui Film Commissioner Tracy Bennett’s bio lists several areas of expertise. Acting is not one of them. Courtesy: Maui Film Commission

The code also prohibits officers or employees from engaging in any business activity “which is incompatible with the proper discharge of the officer’s or employee’s official duties or which may tend to impair the officer’s or employee’s independence of judgment in the performance of the officer’s or employee’s official duties.”

Maui Corporation Counsel Moana Lutey, who serves as legal counsel to the Maui Board of Ethics, declined to comment. Brian Perry, a spokesman for Maui Mayor Michael Victorino, also did not respond.

Movie and television productions provide employment to an army of Hawaii actors and crew members, plus additional jobs to hotels and other services supporting cast and crew imported from Hollywood.

But the jobs come at a price: Hawaii uses taxpayer money to subsidize 20% of qualifying production costs on Oahu and 25% on neighbor islands. Although state subsidies are technically tax credits, the credits are refundable, which means the state generally simply cuts checks to the movies.

According to the latest available data from the Hawaii Department of Taxation, the state expended $80.2 million for production tax credits in 2018, up from $61.7 million claimed for 2017 and $31.9 million for the 2016 tax year. However, effective January 2019, the Legislature capped the aggregate credit amount at $35 million annually. The department has not published data for 2019 or later.

Under the film incentive program, 25% of Bennett’s compensation from the production could count as a qualifying expenditure covered by the taxpayers. In addition, public records made available by Civil Beat show Maui taxpayers paid Bennett $81,588 in 2020 for his work as an Economic Development Specialist III and $86,304.00 in 2018.

The state program is overseen by the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism’s Creative Industries Division. Georja Skinner, who is in charge of the Hawaii State Film Office as the division’s head, declined repeated interview requests.

Although Bennett and the movie’s producer and director also did not respond to requests for comment, a document obtained by Civil Beat shows Bennett playing the role of Deputy Roarke in what The Maui News described as a Hallmark movie called “Man-eater.”

More Than A Bit Role

Known as a “call sheet,” the document indicates who is to show up on the set on a particular day. On June 21, according to the call sheet, Bennett was to show up for scenes with Adkins and fellow actors Richmond Branscombe, playing Sheriff Kua; Kim Delonghi, a character named Beth; and Nicky Whelan as Jessie Quinlan.

Bennett was by far the least experienced. Branscombe’s profile on the Internet Movie Database lists 157 credits as an actor, Whelan’s profile has 63 and DeLonghi has 11 acting credits. Bennett, by contrast, has just two: as an unnamed partygoer in 2007’s “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry,” and an uncredited role appearing in a “defaced magazine photo” in 2001’s “Ghost World.”

In addition, while Bennett’s Maui film commissioner bio lists numerous items under the heading “Tracy Bennett’s Skills & Expertise,” including photography, lighting and film production, acting is not one of them.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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