Wells Fargo CEO pummeled on Capitol Hill over multiyear scam
Wells Fargo’s longtime chief executive John Stumpf endured more than two hours of pummeling Tuesday on Capitol Hill over a scheme in which bank employees created millions of sham accounts to meet aggressive sales goals.
“I have often said that banking is based on trust and that trust was broken at Wells Fargo,” Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, said during the hearing.
Stumpf, who has been at Wells Fargo for more than 30 years, repeatedly apologized for letting down customers. But the questioning was often tense, and Stumpf was interrupted and chastised by lawmakers for not catching the problem sooner.
“I am deeply sorry that we failed to fulfill our responsibility to our customers, to our team members, and to the American public,” Stumpf told the committee. “I have been with Wells Fargo through many challenges, none that pains me more than the one we will discuss this morning.”
The San Francisco-based bank has been in lawmakers’ crosshairs since being fined $185 million earlier this month after thousands of the bank’s employees created up to 2 million fake accounts — from credit cards to checking accounts — to meet sales goals. In some cases, bank customers faced various fees for accounts they didn’t request, or bank employees took money from an authorized account to create a fake one.
Wells Fargo fired 5,300 employees between 2011 and 2016 for the scheme, including some managers and “one area president,” Stumpf said. The bank will review whether the conduct could have occurred before 2011, he said. “We don’t want to leave any stone unturned,” Stumpf said.
But that was not enough for many members of the committee, who grilled Stumpf for details about the scheme and repeatedly expressed astonishment that senior management allowed problems to fester for so long without taking more assertive action.
In one tense exchange, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) demanded that Stumpf explain why he had not offered to give up any of his compensation — he made $19 million last year — or resigned in the wake of the scandal. She noted that Stumpf repeatedly touted Well Fargo’s ability to sell more and more products to customers in quarterly calls with analysts, and then watched as investors pushed up the bank’s stock price, generating gains that increased his own holding by about $200 million over several years.
“Evidently your definition of accountable is to push the responsibility” to low-level, low-wage workers, Warren said. “It is gutless leadership. You should resign; you should give back the money.”
Stumpf stumbled while trying to respond to Warren.
Wells Fargo’s case has become a new flash point in the debate over whether, eight years after the Great Recession, U.S. regulators are doing enough to hold Wall Street accountable for bad behavior.
“There is simply no place for this kind of outrageous behavior in America,” Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said in a letter to Wells Fargo customers Tuesday. “Our economy depends on a strong and safe banking system to help keep it moving. But even after Americans spent years working hard to recover from the Great Recession, the culture of misconduct and recklessness that preceded that crisis too often persists.”
During the hearing, Stumpf faced tough questioning from lawmakers about whether the company’s top executives should return some of their bonuses over the misconduct. In particular, lawmakers took aim at Carrie Tolstedt, the former head of the company’s community banking unit.
Tolstedt was told that the company was “going in a different direction,” in part because of the misconduct discovered in her unit, Stumpf said. Tolstedt opted to retire in July. But lawmakers were peeved by reports that Tolstedt, a 27-year veteran of the bank, could leave with more than $100 million in compensation. Tolstedt and other top executives should be forced to give back some of their compensation, they said.
“So, 5,300 team members, earning perhaps $30,000 a year, have lost their jobs, while Ms. Tolstedt walks away with $100 million, give or take,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), the ranking minority-party member of the committee. “Despite firing thousands of team members, Ms. Tolstedt seemingly decided it was not important enough to alert the head of the company or the board of directors or anyone else for two years, if ever, even though you both sat on the bank’s board.”
The company’s board is reviewing whether senior executives will face “clawbacks” of their compensation, Stumpf said. Though chairman of the board, Stumpf said he is not part of that discussion, which is being handled by a compensation committee.
Stumpf told lawmakers that he learned of the misbehavior in 2013, but acknowledged the bank did not act quickly enough to remedy the problem. “I want to apologize for violating the trust our customers have invested in Wells Fargo,” Stumpf said. “And I want to apologize for not doing more sooner to address the causes of this unacceptable activity.”