Policy

Mnuchin's ‘Batman’ Flap is No Joke, Ethics Experts Say

“It reflects a lack of concern for the ethics rules.”

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin arrives in the House Chamber before President Donald Trump addressed a joint session of Congress in the Capitol, February 28, 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s disclaimer before promoting a movie he produced does not clear him of potential violations of ethics rules, experts said.

Mnuchin’s comments last week urging people to send their children to “The LEGO Batman Movie” prompted Sen. Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, to inquire this week on the Treasury secretary’s progress of divesting his financial assets. 

Wyden also said he was concerned that Mnuchin, the wealthiest Treasury secretary in a decade, had violated government ethics regulations that forbid employees from using their federal position to endorse products or services.

“At this time, Sec. Mnuchin has provided the Committee no evidence that he has divested his interests in Ratpac-Dune Entertainment Holdings LLC,” Wyden wrote to Walter Shaub Jr., director of the Office of Government Ethics.

Rachel McCleery, a spokeswoman for Wyden, said the senator on Wednesday had not yet heard from OGE and had “not been provided the information from Mnuchin in question.” 

An OGE spokesman said, “We have received the letter, and we are evaluating it.”

Mnuchin stated in his Jan. 10 ethics agreement that he planned to divest his interest in Ratpac-Dune Entertainment Holdings within 120 days of his Feb. 13 confirmation. That would mean he would need to unload his holdings in the film production company by June 13.

A Treasury spokesman said Mnuchin “will fully comply with his ethics agreement” and noted that the secretary’s comments came during a “lighthearted moment.”

“Secretary Mnuchin directly acknowledged and understood the ethics law involved,” the Treasury spokesman said. “As his statement reflects, the secretary clearly recognized that he generally may not promote private interests and specifically gave the legal disclosure that he was not promoting a movie but was answering a question he was asked directly.”

During an event Friday with the Axios news website, Mnuchin was asked for movie recommendations. “So I just want to have the legal disclosure, you’ve asked me the question, and I am not promoting any product. But you should send all your kids to ‘LEGO Batman,’ ” Mnuchin quipped.

“It’s surprising he would treat it like a joke,” said Larry Noble, senior director and general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center. “He’s actually promoting his own business.”

Noble and other ethics experts said Mnuchin’s statements, coupled with another administration official’s product endorsement, seemed to indicate a flippant attitude toward ethics.

White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway gave a self-described “free commercial” in February during a TV interview for Ivanka Trump’s products. The White House later said she has since been counseled on ethics requirements for federal officials.

“It reflects a lack of concern for the ethics rules,” Noble added. “Sometimes these seem like minor things, but they’re not.”

Meredith McGehee, another ethics expert, said Mnuchin “crossed the line. The disclaimer really is irrelevant.“ 

“It once again raises the question as to what kind of ethics training these high-level administration officials are getting, if any,” added McGehee, who is with the watchdog group Issue One. 

Mnuchin, who also had a career on Wall Street as a Goldman Sachs partner, has 38 credits as a producer of films such as “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Sully,” and “American Sniper,” according to the Internet Movie Database. Besides the “LEGO Batman” movie, Mnuchin has four more films listing him as executive producer that are set for release this year. 

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