The Office of Government Ethics refused to certify Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s 2018 financial disclosure statement over a sleight-of-hand arrangement involving his stake in a film production company. In 2017, he transferred his holdings in Stormchaser Partners to its founder, Louise Linton, then gained them back when they married a month later.
Now Mnuchin is revising his federal ethics pledge to recuse himself from any decisions that could benefit the company, which the ethics office says puts him back “in compliance.” However, he has continued to work on a trade deal with China that includes expanded access for the movie industry, The New York Times reported Thursday.
“I will not participate personally and substantially in any particular matter that to my knowledge has a direct and predictable effect on my imputed financial interest in Stormchaser Partners,” Mnuchin wrote in a letter Wednesday to the assistant general counsel of the Treasury Department. He said Stormchaser didn’t currently own or have an interest in any international films.
Treasury Department spokesman Tony Sayegh said Mnuchin has “no conflicts of interest that would limit his participation in ongoing China talks.”
Mnuchin had promised to divest himself from Stormchasers Partners after Donald Trump nominated him as treasury secretary, selling his holdings to Linton. He in effect reacquired the assets of the company, which again posed a potential conflict of interest, according to OGE officials.
The ethics office said in a letter Thursday to Senate Finance Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) that it is still “unable to certify” Mnuchin’s financial disclosure report because of his interest in Stormchaser, from which he “agreed to divest.” However, OGE will now “consider him in compliance” with ethics regulations because of his recusal statement even as he continues to “hold an imputed interest” in the film company.
Walter Shaub, a former federal ethics chief under Barack Obama and Trump, blasted the accommodation for Mnuchin. A spouse’s business holdings have always been considered as posing potential conflicts of interest for a federal official, he emphasized. In addition, he warned that the Trump administration views the conflict-of-interest law as “inapplicable to a broad multi-sector trade agreement,” such as the one Mnuchin is helping negotiate with China. That means the administration would find it acceptable if the treasury secretary negotiates a “clause in such an agreement that increases the value of the asset he sold Linton,” Shaub wrote.
Mnuchin told the Senate Finance Committee last month that ethics officials from his own Treasury Department told him he could transfer his Stormchaser holdings to Linton. But he did not tell OGE, nor did the office approve the action, so officials refused to certify his financial disclosure statement, the Times reported.
In 2017, during an interview with Axios, Mnuchin plugged a film being produced by another film company he still had a stake in. He later wrote in a letter to the OGE that he simply responded to a “light-hearted” question and that he takes his ethical responsibilities “very seriously” — and should not have plugged the film.
Sayegh tweeted a statement insisting that the ethics issue was merely a “technical difference” between Mnuchin’s own staff and OGE. He tweeted earlier that the Times’ article about Mnuchin and the film holdings was “ill informed and irresponsible.”
In February, the OGE also refused to certify Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ financial disclosure statement, citing his failure to adhere to his ethics agreement through delayed divesture, and several inaccuracies and omissions on his financial disclosure statement, Bloomberg reported.