Editorial: Get to top of Wells Fargo customer fraud


California’s attorney general is conducting a criminal investigation into whether employees at San Francisco-based Wells Fargo bank committed false impersonation and identity theft in the sales practices scandal. | Getty Images

When 5,300 people at a bank are all running the same scam, sticking customers with products they did not ask for, you might call that a criminal enterprise.

At the very least, the bank suffers from a culture of severely lapsed ethics.

But at Wells Fargo & Co., where this scammed played out over about five years, who does the chief executive blame? Certainly not himself. And certainly not his senior management team. Even the executive who ran the bank unit where the scamming took place has not been held to account. When she retires at the end of the year, according to a Wells Fargo statement issued in July, she will be entitled to about $95 million in stock and options.

Then who is to blame?

The staff, of course. The middle-management. The nobodies — some of whom were being paid as little as $10 an hour.

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So says Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf. A certain number of employees, he bemoaned to the Wall Street Journal this week, failed to honor the exalted bank’s culture. He called their conduct “not acceptable.”

This is a farce, of course, and we trust the Senate Banking Committee will see right through it when it questions Stumpf next Tuesday. When 5,300 employees in any business — even one with a total of 270,000 employees — rip customers off, responsibility shoots up the ladder. Wells Fargo’s top executives either encouraged the scam or looked the other way or were clueless, any of which is arguably a fireable offense.

In a country divided by a historic wealth and income gap, where middle-class people struggle while a fortunate few enjoy great riches, it is essential that those at the very top who engage in misconduct be held to account as fully as any run-of-the-mill thief. Or we can quit insisting that the game ain’t rigged.

Wells Fargo is feeling the heat now, we should add, only because of the work of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an entity created by President Barack Obama that Republicans in Congress have vowed to eliminate. The Los Angeles Times did investigative work that shed light on Wells Fargo’s misconduct, but the bank suffered no consequences until the CFPB looked into the matter. Last week, Wells Fargo paid a $185 million fine to regulators.

That’s a good argument for why Congress should keep its hands off the CFPB, no matter who wins the presidency in November.

The fraud at Wells Fargo apparently began when bank managers put intense pressure on employees to cross-sell products. If a customer wanted to open a checking account, for example, you might also try to sell him a home-equity line or a certificate of deposit or even a mortgage. Incentive pay and bonuses were on the line. If you did not meet minimum goals, you feared you could be fired.

The phony account practice yielded only an estimated $2.4 million in fees for the San Francisco-based bank — a pittance for a company that generated $86 billion in revenue last year — but it was money plucked from the pockets of thousands of ordinary people.

Cross-selling in itself is no crime, or even objectionable. It’s like a clerk in a shoe store asking, “Would you like socks to go with those shoes?” But at Wells Fargo, cross-selling was “like a religion,” a bank research expert told the Wall Street Journal, and the pressure to produce was unrelenting.

“It was all management: their boss, then their boss, then their boss,” a former bank teller told the Journal. “They are putting pressure on employees, and it’s sad. People need their jobs.”

The Senate Banking Committee’s job next week is track how high up the ladder the fraud reached at Wells Fargo. Who knew what, and who told whom to do what? We see no reason criminal charges should not be considered next. And Wells Fargo should be pressured to claw back the stock awards to the retiring executive who ran the bank unit at the center of the scam. Stock awards can be recouped, according to a Bloomberg News reading of Wells Fargo’s own rules, when an employee’s misconduct damages the bank’s reputation.

It boggles the mind that thousands of employees of a bank — even one of the biggest banks in the country — would systematically rip off tens of thousands of customers. You might think that would be hard to miss. But of the 5,300 employees fired over five years, only about ten percent were branch bank managers or higher.

That does not add up.

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