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An Internal Watchdog Will Investigate the Delay of the Harriet Tubman $20 Bill

The bill’s redesign was supposed to be unveiled in 2020, but Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the process would be delayed until 2026

A crop of a carte-de-visite of Harriet Tubman seated in an interior room. ( Collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture shared with the Library of Congress)
smithsonian.com

In 2016, the Obama administration announced a major overhaul of the $20 bill, one that would see Harriet Tubman’s image replace that of President Andrew Jackson. The final redesign was supposed to be unveiled in 2020, in time for the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote; Tubman, in addition to being a famed abolitionist, was a supporter of the women’s rights movement.

This spring, however, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that the redesign process would be pushed back until 2026, with the new bill not coming out until 2028. Now, as Vanessa Romo reports for NPR, the Treasury Department is conducting an internal investigation into the circumstances surrounding the delay.

The move to boost Tubman’s image onto the $20 bill—while bumping Jackson from the currency—was supposed to be a significant moment for the nation. Tubman was slated to be the first woman to appear on paper currency since the late 19th century, when Martha Washington’s portrait briefly adorned the $1 silver certificate. What’s more, Jackson, in addition to being the country’s seventh president, was a slaveholder. Tubman, an escaped slave, helped lead slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

In May, Mnuchin told the House Financial Services Committee that the redesign was being delayed because making security upgrades to the $10 and $50 bills were a priority.

“The primary reason we’ve looked at redesigning the currency is for counterfeiting issues,” he explained. “Based upon this, the $20 bill will now not come out until 2028. The $10 and the $50 will come out with new features beforehand.”

In a letter to the Treasury Department dated June 19, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York requested that the office investigate the circumstances surrounding the delay. “We do not know the real reason for these decisions,” Schumer wrote, but noted that during his 2016 campaign, President Trump, who is an admirer of Jackson, called the redesign efforts “pure political correctness.”

Rich Delmar, acting inspector general of the Treasury Department who works as an “internal watchdog,” responded later that week, informing Schumer that an investigation into the fate of the $20 bill would be incorporated into a larger, pre-planned audit of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing’s implementation of currency security features. “As part of this work,” Delmar wrote, “we will interview the stakeholders involved in the new note design process.”

The investigation will “specifically include review of the process with respect to the $20 bill,” Delmar added. “If, in the course of our audit work, we discover indications of employee misconduct or other matters that warrant a referral to our Office of Investigations, we will do so expeditiously.” The inquiry, Delmar said, will take around 10 months.

Some have questioned whether the decision to push back the redesign was motivated by politics, rather than security concerns. Earlier this month, Alan Rappeport of the New York Times reported that work on the new bill was “well underway” by the time Mnuchin made his announcement, and that “a metal engraving plate and a digital image of a Tubman $20 bill” were being reviewed by Secret Service officials and engravers as recently as May 2018.

Mnuchin, however, maintained that he had not deliberately slowed down the process. His spokesperson, Monica Crowley, noted that a new $20 bill was still on track to be released into circulation by 2030—the Obama administration had also stipulated that the bill would be circulated several years after its design was first revealed—but she did not say that the new design would feature Tubman, according to Rappeport.

In a statement, Schumer said he was “pleased” the inspector general had decided to look into the matter.

“There are no women, there are no people of color on our paper currency today, even though they make up a significant majority of our population,” he added, “and the previous administration’s plan to put New Yorker Harriet Tubman on the $20 note was a long overdue way to recognize that disparity, and rectify it.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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