Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin Used His Position In Government to Promote Films He Produced
Published: February 14, 2018
Relevant Ethics Rules
The Office of Government Ethics’ Standards of Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch regulates the conduct of executive branch employees, which includes the Treasury Secretary.
It forbids the use of public office for personal private gain or the endorsement of any product. Specifically, it reads:
"An employee shall not use his public office for his own private gain [or] for the endorsement of any product, service or enterprise......."
Mnuchin's Private Business Interests
Prior to taking his position at the US Treasury, Steven Mnuchin co-founded the film production company RatPac-Dune.
According to Sec. Mnuchin’s Office of Government Ethics form 278e, RatPac-Dune held an agreement with Warner Brothers in which it invested in a total of 75 films by Warner Brothers and receives an income stream in return.
(You can learn about OGE 278e forms here).
One of the 75 films RatPac-Dune invested in was the “Lego Batman” movie.
Mnuchin had also previously invested in Twentieth Century Fox's film “Avatar.”
Also relevant is that Mnuchin never invested in the films "Wolves of Wall Street" and "The Big Short."
Mnuchin’s Ethics Agreement
On January 10, 2017, Mnuchin submitted his ethics agreement to the Designated Agency Ethics Official for the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
(You can learn about ethics agreements here).
In this agreement he states, “Within 120 days of my confirmation, I will divest my interests in Ratpac-Dune Entertainment Holdings LLC.”
He goes on to say, “With regard to these interests, I will not participate personally and substantially in any particular matter that to my knowledge has a direct and predictable effect on the financial interests of the entity until I have divested it, unless I first obtain a written waiver ..... or qualify for a regulatory exemption.......”
This means that Mnuchin agreed to not participate in any matter that, to his knowledge, has a direct and predictable effect on the financial interests of RatPac-Dune, until he was fully divested from it (unless he obtains a written waiver).
Mnuchin’s March 2017 Interview
During a live Q&A that took place on March 24, 2017, Mnuchin was asked, “as a former producer, what’s your favorite movie?”
Sec. Mnuchin replied, “Oh, no question “Avatar.” Largest grossing film ever.”
Interviewer: "Have you seen “Wolves of Wall Street”?”
Mnuchin: “I have. Complete misrepresentation.”
Interviewer: “Have you seen “The Big Short”?”
Mnuchin: “Complete misrepresentation.”
Interviewer “What’s a movie that we should see?”
Mnuchin: “Well I’m not allowed to promote anything that I’m involved in so I just wanna 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"".
Thus, Sec. Mnuchin encouraged people to go see the “Lego Batman” film in which his company, RatPac Dune, held a financial interest.
He also described “Avatar,” a film in which he had previously held a financial interest, as his “favorite movie” and described “Wolves of Wall Street” and “The Big Short” - the two films he was asked about in which he never held financial interests - as “complete misrepresentations.”
By promoting a film in which he has a personal financial interest, Sec. Mnuchin may have been in violation of the prohibition on executive branch employees using public office for private gain or the endorsement of any product.
Senator Wyden Requests a Review
In response, the Ranking Member of the Senate Finance Committee, Senator Ron Wyden, sent a letter to the Director of the US Office of Government Ethics Walter M. Shaub, Jr. on March 27, 2017 about, “troubling comments made by Steven Mnuchin in his capacity as Treasury Secretary during a live interview......”
He goes on to state that, “I am concerned that despite his “legal disclosure,” these comments may constitute a violation of Secretary Mnuchin’s January 10, 2017 ethics agreement.”
He further states, “OGE regulations require Sec. Mnuchin to notify the Finance Committee with evidence of compliance with the terms of his ethics agreement. At this time Sec. Mnuchin has provided the Committee no evidence that he has divested his interest in Ratpac-Dune Entertainment Holdings LLC, and I assume he still holds the interest.”
He continues, “OGE regulations state that, “An employee shall not use or permit the use of his Government position or title or any authority associated with his public office to endorse any product, service or enterprise” with limited exceptions. I am concerned that Sec. Mnuchin’s comments may also be interpreted as an explicit endorsement of films produced by Ratpac-Dune, in violation of OGE regulations.”
Senator Wyden requested that the Director review the potential ethics violations.
Director Shaub wrote back to Sen. Wyden on March 31, 2017 replying, “I share your concern about these remarks.”
However, Schaub stated that he chose not to pursue disciplinary action because Sec. Mnuchin had submitted a letter to the OGE in which he pledged to exercise greater caution in the future.
In his ethics agreement, Sec. Mnuchin agreed to not participate in any matter that, to his knowledge, has a direct and predictable effect on the financial interests of RatPac-Dune, until he has fully divested from it (unless he obtains a written waiver).
As of March 27, 2017, Senator Wyden, the Ranking Member of the Senate Finance Committee had seen no evidence that Sec. Mnuchin had divested from RatPac-Dune, which would mean that Mnuchin still held a financial interest in the success of the Lego Batman movie at the time of his March 24, 2017 interview.
Moreover, during the interview, Mnuchin made it clear that he understood that he was “not allowed to promote anything that I’m involved in.”
Yet he proceeded to do so anyway, knowingly violating both his ethics agreement and the restriction on executive branch employees endorsing products.
This is one of several incidents in which members of the Trump administration have used public office in a manner which could enrich themselves or other members of the administration.
For example, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway used her position in government to endorse Ivanka Trump branded products.
And President Trump has used his position in government to advertise his undivested private businesses.
This incident is thus one of many instances of political corruption that is endemic to the Trump administration.