A Democratic senator has asked the Office of Government Ethics to investigate comments made by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in an interview this week, in which he appeared to jokingly “plug” one of his previous company’s films, The Lego Batman Movie.
Senate Finance Committee chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) sent a letter to OGE Ethics Director Walter Schaub this week asking for a probe into the comments made by Mnuchin — a Hollywood film financier before taking a job in the Trump administration — in a live interview with news outlet Axios on Friday.
In the letter, Wyden asked the ethics watchdog to investigate whether Mnuchin may have promoted the product of a business he still holds interest in — namely, the production company RatPac-Dune Entertainment — when he urged attendees at the Axios event to send their kids to see the Lego Batman Movie, which was produced by RatPac Dune.
“I am concerned that Sec. Mnuchin’s comments, may be seen to have a predictable effect on the financial interests” of RatPac-Dune, Wyden wrote in the letter.
At the Axios event on Friday, Mnuchin — whose RatPac Dune helped produce blockbuster films including Avatar and Mad Max: Fury Road — was asked to give a movie recommendation.
“Well, I’m not allowed to promote anything that I’m involved in. So I just want to have the legal disclosure, you’ve asked me the question, and I am not promoting any product,” the Treasury Secretary replied. “But you should send all your kids to Lego Batman.”
In his letter to Schaub, Wyden called the comments “troubling” and asked for the ethics watchdog to complete a review and report the results to both himself and the Treasury Department. Wyden noted that as part of his service in President Trump’s Cabinet, Mnuchin had promised to “not participate personally and substantially in any particular matter that to [his] knowledge has a direct and predictable effect on the financial interests of the entity.”
Mnuchin is allowed 120 days from his confirmation to comply with the ethics agreement, but Wyden wrote that the Finance Committee had received “no evidence” to show that the Treasury Secretary had divested his interest in RatPac-Dune.
In a statement, a Treasury spokesperson pointed out that Mnuchin had deliberately stated he was not promoting the film while speaking with Axios.
“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 answering a question he was asked directly,” the statement read.
Whatever the outcome, The Lego Batman Movie likely doesn’t need the publicity; the family-friendly animated film has grossed a total of $293 million at the international box office since its release in early February.
Follow Daniel Nussbaum on Twitter: @dznussbaum