A previously unknown portrait, c. 1868, of Harriet Tubman is projected on a screen before the unveiling of the photograph at The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in March

A previously unknown portrait, c. 1868, of Harriet Tubman is projected on a screen before the unveiling of the photograph at The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in March Sait Serkan Gurbuz/AP

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Treasury Auditors Are Reviewing Department's Decision to Delay Putting Tubman on $20 Bill

Senate Minority Leader Schumer sought IG probe of Secretary Mnuchin’s rationale.

A month after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced a controversial decision to delay an already-three-year-old process for putting slavery-fighter Harriet Tubman’s image on the $20 bill, his rationale is getting a review from auditors at Treasury’s Office of the Inspector General.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., in whose home state Tubman (1820-1913) spent her later life, on Wednesday wrote to the IG Eric Thorson seeking a probe of whether politics and President Trump’s earlier comments on Tubman played a role.

 “More than three years ago, [Obama administration Treasury] Secretary Jacob Lew announced that he had ordered the acceleration of redesigns of the $20, $10 and $5 notes, and that the 'final concept design' of the $20 note, including Harriet Tubman’s portrait, would be released in 2020,” Schumer wrote. “Shortly after the Trump administration took office, however, all mentions of the Tubman $20 bill were deleted without explanation from the Treasury Department’s website. Then we learned, according to recent testimony by Secretary Steven Mnuchin, that a decision had been made to delay the release of the new $20 note until the year 2028,” with no confirmation that Tubman’s image would ever appear.

Mnuchin gave a technical explanation at a May 22 House Financial Services Committee hearing, citing new anti-counterfeiting tools that had affected the schedule and denying that politics played a role.

In a Friday interview with Government Executive, counsel to the IG Rich Delmar said“We believe we can incorporate in an audit already going on for the Bureau of Printing and Engraving looking at the underlying issues on this. If we find anything in [the] course of doing that audit that would warrant referral to the Office of Investigation,” he said, “we would make the referral.”

Schumer, who was joined by other Democrats in criticizing Mnuchin’s decision, sought “a review of the involvement of the interagency process related to the redesign—including the Secret Service, Federal Reserve, and the White House—to ensure that political considerations did not taint the process.”

The New York Times on June 14 reported that Mnuchin’s explanation for the eight-year delay did not jibe with statements from some Bureau of Printing and Engraving employees. They described the design work with Tubman replacing the current image of President Andrew Jackson as far along, and said there was a sense of excitement and pride at the coming Tubman bill.

Mnuchin told the Times that there was no deliberate delay. “There is a group of experts that’s interagency, including the Secret Service and others and B.E.P., that are all career officials that are focused on this,” he said. “They’re working as fast as they can.”

At the May House hearing, Mnuchin had said, “The primary reason that we looked to redesign currency is for counterfeiting issues. Based upon this, the twenty-dollar bill will now not come out until 2028. The ten-dollar bill and the fifty-dollar bill will come out with new features before then.”

Echoing Schumer’s concerns about politicization, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Wednesday tweeted, “It is an insult to the hopes of millions that the Trump Administration is refusing to honor Harriet Tubman on our $20 bill. This unnecessary decision must be reversed.”

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., ranking member on the Finance Committee, accused Mnuchin of misleading the House panel. “Rather than technical delays, it appears the administration simply does not want to see an African-American woman placed on our currency,” he said in a statement. “Congress needs answers about how far along the redesign was before Secretary Mnuchin blocked it.”

Also wading in is Financial Services Committee member Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., who wrote Mnuchin on June 6 requesting “a specific timeline” for all the currency redesign plans as well as an explanation, by July 1, for Treasury removing the ModernMoney.treasury.gov website dedicated to currency redesign. She noted that previous Secretary Lew had “launched a massive public campaign to solicit suggestions as to who should be featured on our currency—hosting roundtables at American history museums, town halls at local state and community colleges, and collecting letters and emails—resulting in over a million responses” to the idea of having Tubman on the bill in time for the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote.

“On May 22, 2019, you sat before the House Financial Services Committee and indicated that you believe that representation matters—both within American politics and our imagery,” Pressley wrote. “You also agreed that people other than white men have greatly contributed to this country and to its history. However, these two acknowledgements are in direct contradiction with your refusal to carry out the redesign timeline set forth by your predecessor.”

The Treasury Department did not respond to requests for comment.

One reason for the Democrats’ suspicions about Mnuchin’s motives is the comment made in April 2016 by then-candidate Trump that the Obama administration’s plan to honor Tubman was “pure political correctness.” Speaking at a town hall on NBC’s “Today Show,” Trump said, “Andrew Jackson had a great history, and I think it's very rough when you take somebody off the bill. I think Harriet Tubman is fantastic, but I would love to leave Andrew Jackson or see if we can maybe come up with another denomination."