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Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin sent a letter to the Office of Government Ethics on Friday claiming that he didn’t mean to violate ethics rules when he made a public plug for “The Lego Batman Movie,” a film that Mnuchin’s company financed.
When Mnuchin was asked at a discussion hosted by the news website Axios last week for movie recommendations, he responded, “I’m not allowed to promote anything that I’m involved in, but you should send all your kids to ‘LEGO Batman.'”
Mnuchin wrote that he regretted his comment, which he claimed was made in jest in response to a “light-hearted question.” But, Mnuchin wrote, it was reasonable to interpret his answer as encouraging the audience to see the film and, therefore, it was a mistake.
“I should not have made that statement,” Mnuchin wrote.
Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs banker, co-founded RatPac-Dune, a production company that has funded and produced dozens of Hollywood movies, including “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”
In response to Mnuchin’s endorsement, Sen. Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, sent a letter to the head of the Office of Government Ethics on Monday expressing his concern about the comments and the status of Mnuchin’s divestment from his businesses.
Wyden requested that the office review Mnuchin’s comments and report back to Wyden and the Treasury Department.
“It’s surprising he would treat it like a joke,” Larry Noble, general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, told Newsday. “It reflects a lack of concern for the ethics rules. Sometimes these seem like minor things, but they’re not.”
Federal ethics rules prohibit executive branch employees from using their position for personal gain or “for the endorsement of any product, service or enterprise, or for the private gain of friends, relatives or persons with whom the employee is affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity.”
The controversy surrounding Mnuchin comes after Kellyanne Conway, President Donald Trump’s senior counselor, encouraged Americans to buy Ivanka Trump’s product line in February after the brand was dropped by Nordstrom’s.
“It’s a wonderful line. I own some of it,” Conway said on Fox & Friends. “I’m going to give a free commercial here. Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online.”
The Office of Government Ethics wrote that there was “strong reason to believe that Ms. Conway has violated the Standards of Conduct and that disciplinary action is warranted.”
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said in February that Conway had been “counseled” about her comments. The White House deputy counsel told the office that he met with Conway after her remarks and that she committed to follow ethics rules more closely in the future.