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Treasury Department watchdog will review delay of the Harriet Tubman $20 bill

This rendering from the Women on 20's organization depicts Tubman on the $20 bill.
This rendering from the Women on 20's organization depicts Tubman on the $20 bill.

A Treasury Department watchdog will review the delayed release of $20 bills featuring Harriet Tubman, according to a letter sent by the department’s acting inspector general to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

In May, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin delayed plans to replace President Andrew Jackson’s likeness on the $20 with Tubman’s. He said the decision likely would not be considered until 2026, and therefore wouldn’t take effect until 2028. The agency was more concerned, Mnuchin said, about updating the $10 and $50 bill first to prevent counterfeiting.

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Treasury officials announced in 2016 during Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration that Tubman, one of the most famous conductors of the Underground Railroad that led slaves to freedom, would be placed on the $20 bill.

The investigation, which will take place as part of a department audit meant to determine whether anti-counterfeiting measures are being implemented properly, “will specifically include review of the process with respect to the $20 bill,” wrote acting Inspector General Rich Delmar.

“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,” he wrote in the letter to Schumer, which was sent as a response to the Democrat’s letter calling for an investigation — “including any involvement of the White House” in the decision.

It will likely be 10 months until officials can complete the investigation and produce a report, Delmar wrote.

In a statement, Rep. Elijah Cummings, who’s pushed hard for the Tubman $20, said the delay is “unacceptable” and called for a response to his letter, written with Rep. John Katko of New York, in which the congressmen asked for the specific security concerns that are delaying the new bills.

Sen. Ben Cardin said through a spokesman that he suspects the investigations will find the delays to be without merit.

“I consider it significant progress to better celebrate the legacy of a former slave and abolitionist who made a such a unique contribution to American history,” Cardin said. “[The investigation] represents the type of responsive oversight that has become increasingly necessary in this administration.”

In a statement, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who’s also advocated for the Trump administration to follow through on the Obama administration promise, called the letter “welcome news,” but said “the fight is far from over.”

“I’ve been pushing Secretary Mnuchin to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 for years, but he has refused to commit. We cannot quit until this American hero gets the recognition she deserves,” he said.

Cardin and Van Hollen also have introduced a bill to bring a Harriet Tubman statue to the U.S. Capitol Building.

In a statement, a Treasury Department spokesperson said the process is “not political.”

"The timeline for issuing a new $20 note remains consistent with the prior Administration’s. As the Department and Bureau of Engraving and Printing have consistently stated, the only consideration with regard to the redesign schedule of our Nation’s currency has been security and potential counterfeiting threats," the statement read.

The Obama administration had originally planned to release the $20 featuring Tubman in 2020, pegged for the centennial of the ratification of the19th amendment, which allowed women to vote.

State Democrats have long urged the department to go through with placing the Maryland-born abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor on the bill instead of Jackson.

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"Those we honor on currency make a statement about our nation and our values,” Maryland’s two senators wrote in a 2017 letter to Mnuchin.

Mnuchin said then that it was not a focus for the department.

Cummings has repeatedly pushed the treasury to follow through, including after May’s announcement, which he called a “significant disappointment.”

“Representation for women and people of color on our nation's currency is long overdue,” Cummings wrote in a letter with Katko.

Cardin also submitted a bill in the Senate that would create a national park in Tubman’s name on several important sites from her life, including in Dorchester, Talbot and Caroline counties.

A national historic park has been established in her honor in Dorchester County. And a Tubman museum in Cambridge now features a mural depicting her and her outstretched hand, which appears to reach out of the museum’s brick exterior.

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