WELLS FARGO EMPLOYEES TAKE

THE HIT FOR THEIR BOSS

 

This has been a signature week for the government to come down hard on one of the largest banks. The Wells Fargo Bank CEO John Stumpf was called before the Senate Banking Committee and grilled for his lack of oversight for the scandal that has already cost his company  $185 million in penalties. Still pending are the possibilities that the corporate officers will refund some of their bonus rewards created by the banking scandal and face potential criminal charges.

I say that it is a signature event because it is one of the rare times that the two political parties have joined together to accuse a prominent Wall Street firm and its officers of severe wrongdoing. The Senate hearing on September 20 was tantamount to a kangaroo court when each member of the committee attacked the Wells Fargo CEO and were not satisfied with his responses.

It’s no longer a surprise to read about corruption in politics and by employees engaged in public or military service. I have already expressed my opinions in prior commentaries. Unfortunately, corruption is becoming more prevalent in commercial and industrial public enterprise.

Two media exposés demonstrated a trend for business executives and employees to commit fraud. This is not new as there have been major corporate fraud and class-action suits that have usually resulted in a slap on the corporate wrist by the Securities and Exchange Commission and a multi-million-dollar fine levied against the corporation by the Justice Department.

The only major corruption case in recent decades that involved the top executives was the failure of Enron. The two principal executives were actually prosecuted and convicted of their crime. Since then there have been a number of class-action and SEC charges against major corporations that have only resulted in fining the corporation which only penalizes the stockholders, not the perpetrators.

The disclosure that Wells Fargo had been defrauding their customers by opening unauthorized bank accounts and issuing unauthorized credit cards to meet sales quotas and bonus targets might charge the bank executives for the crime. The 5300 employees involved in this scheme over a period of years were fired or forced to resign. Now they are pointing their fingers at their bosses who demanded that this new-account fraud be carried out. at the risk of losing their jobs.

Under pressure for censure by banking regulators and the SEC, Wells Fargo negotiated a $185 million settlement with the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. The bank is suspected of opening over 2 million faux accounts and issuing new credit cards in the name of existing customers without notice. These bank accounts and credit cards then carried bank charges to the customer without their knowledge.

The defrauded customers have filed lawsuits against Wells Fargo which will go to mediation under the bank’s contractual arrangement that customers cannot sue the bank without mediation. This gives most of the advantage to the banks in a dispute with customers as the defrauded party can only hope for reimbursement of the illegal fees charged, not any compensation for the fraudulent procedure or damage to credit rating.

After the release of the customer fraud, several business commentators noted that substantial bogus income Wells Fargo booked as one of the reasons the bank survived the recent recession with better financial reporting than many of their competitors.

More than 2 million accounts, as many as 565,000 credit card accounts and a shocking 1.5 million checking and savings accounts might be involved in the fraud scheme. Wells Fargo is in the process of notifying about 100,000 California customers who paid fees to contact their local branch in order to determine refunds.

A televised interview by newscaster Jim Cramer with Wells Fargo’s CEO John Stumpf had questions about the corporate fine and the progress of processing refunds to defrauded customers. As suspected, Mr. Stumpf said, “There’s nothing in our culture, nothing in our vision and values, to support unwanted products.”

He implied that rogue employees had created the fraud to improve their earning capacity and be eligible for promotion. Management knew about this since 2013, perhaps even earlier, and began firing employees but not modifying the sales quotas and bonus targets for the lower level employees.

That was a blatant excuse for what no doubt was an upper executive requirement for employees to boost the earning capacity of the bank and then expecting it to go unnoticed by hundreds of thousands of customers. The ensuing lawsuits to be filed by the discredited employees will no doubt point in the direction of executive decisions.

The second business fraud which has been in the news for some time concerns Volkswagen cheating on their emissions tests. The international response to one of the largest automobile companies has been drastic for their business and will endure years of legal actions by consumers and regulators.

It also has forced shifting of the major corporate executives, but no indictments to date. However, the engineer who devised the equipment to falsify the admissions test has pleaded guilty and faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

This case might lead to the Justice Department holding other Volkswagen employees personally and criminally responsible for producing about 500,000 cars that violated the emissions standard that they claimed.

Both corporate frauds follow the same pattern that the executives who develop the schemes can always step aside and let the lower level employees take the fall. This was a very strong statement made by Senator Elizabeth Warren at the Senate banking committee hearing. She accused Mr. Stumpf of letting the blame fall on rank-and-file employees who cannot afford to hire an expensive public relations firms to bail them out of a scandal and avoid criminal indictment.

Several of the senators at the hearing demanded that executives of Wells Fargo be required to refund most of their bonuses and other perks earned because of the profits shown by the bank from the fraudulent operations.

Carrie Tolstedt, a long-time executive who ran the bank’s consumer banking unit, announced her retirement last July after amassing $124 million in salary, bonuses and stock options during her career at the bank. Several senators want her to refund a portion that relates to bonuses from the illegal operations, which one of the senators kindly referred to as “malpractice.”

There’s no doubt that corporate corruption like Wells Fargo and Volkswagen are crimes created by executives who should be penalized.