Senator: Treasury Secretary's Plug For 'Lego Batman' May Be Ethical Violation
The ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee is asking a government watchdog to investigate recent remarks by Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin as a possible ethical violation.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., says in a statement Mnuchin's plug for a movie he helped produce signals "a blatant disregard and disrespect to the office he serves and the power it holds."
A Treasury spokesman said Mnuchin mentioned the movie during a "light-hearted moment," when directly asked for movie recommendations — and that the secretary acknowledged the relevant ethics law in his comment.
The remarks in question came during an event with the media company Axios on Friday. Mnuchin was asked to give a movie recommendation.
Mnuchin, a former Hollywood financier, was an executive producer of The Lego Batman Movie, among other credits.
"Well, I'm not allowed to promote anything that I'm involved in," the Treasury secretary said. "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."
He grinned. The audience laughed.
Wyden isn't so amused.
On Monday, the senator sent a letter to the U.S. Office of Government Ethics asking that Mnuchin's remarks be investigated. He noted that in the same conversation, Mnuchin praised Avatar — a film his company helped produce — while denigrating The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short, two movies he wasn't involved in.
Mnuchin's cheeky "legal disclosure" doesn't insulate him from ethical obligations, Wyden suggests. He noted that there's no evidence Mnuchin has separated himself, financially speaking, from his Hollywood production firm. (The Treasury secretary has pledged to divest, but has a few months to fulfill that promise.)
Even if Mnuchin has divested from the company, Wyden writes, government employees aren't supposed to use their position, title or authority to "endorse any product, service or enterprise." He asked the government watchdog to examine whether the remarks qualify.
A Treasury spokesman says that in his remarks, Mnuchin "clearly recognized that he generally may not promote private interests and specifically gave the legal disclosure that he was not promoting a movie, but answering a question he was asked directly."
The spokesman also notes that the comment was "light-hearted."
Last month another Trump associate was in hot water for promoting a product — adviser Kellyanne Conway urged Fox News watchers to "go buy Ivanka's stuff."
The Office of Government Ethics said there was "strong reason" to believe that was an ethical violation that warranted disciplinary action.
The White House defended Conway's remarks as "inadvertent," "light" and "off-hand."
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.