Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren grilled Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf on Tuesday for his role in a widespread scheme in which thousands of bankers opened more than 2 million accounts for customers without them knowing over at least five years.
“You should resign. You should give back the money you took while this scam was going on and you should be criminally investigated,” Warren told Stumpf, after he admitted under Warren’s grilling he hadn’t yet been held personally accountable for the actions of his employees.
The Democratic senator also forced Stumpf, who was under questioning from the Senate banking committee over his bank’s handling of the scam, to admit that no senior executives have been held accountable for the actions of the low-level bankers.
Some forged signatures and committed identity theft to open fraudulent bank accounts, while under pressure to meet sales targets or be fired. These employees, Stumpf explained earlier in the committee hearing, were “well-paid,” making between $30,000 and $60,000 a year. Stumpf made $19.3 million in 2015.
“This just isn’t right,” Warren said. “You squeezed employees to the breaking point” to drive up the stock price and your compensation, she said, referencing the bank’s fierce drive to “cross-sell” or make customers open up multiple accounts. “You went on television to blame thousands of $12-an-hour” workers.
“It’s gutless leadership,” Warren said.
Last week Stumpf in a televised interview appeared to blame low-level workers for this behavior, which was widespread throughout the bank ― 5,300 employees were fired for their involvement.
A cashier who “steals a handful of $20s” is held accountable, Warren said. Bank executives aren’t.
“The only way Wall Street will change will be if executives face jail time” for criminal behavior, she said.
In the Wells Fargo scandal, people were mistakenly charged fees, saw their credit ratings fall, got credit cards in the mail they never asked for or just were confused.
The bank said that it had fired the thousands of employees from 2011 to 2016 for engaging in the practice. Stumpf tried on Tuesday to make the case that this was a few bad apples, explaining the firings amounted to 1 percent of the bank’s 100,000 retail bankers every year.
The incentive to open fake accounts was strong: Wells Fargo bankers received quarterly bonuses for cross-selling. Stumpf said on Tuesday that the lowest-paid bank workers make $12 an hour in low-cost regions and have salaries that touch $16.50 an hour in the highest-cost areas. Those who lost their jobs were making on average $35,000 to $60,000 a year ― and that included some regional bank managers. Bonuses for bankers were $500 to $2,000 every three months, The Wall Street Journal reports. District managers could get $10,000 to $20,000 a year.
Wells Fargo just this month announced it would get rid of these incentives, beginning in January 2017.
Earlier this month, Wells Fargo was fined $185 million, including a record $100 million penalty imposed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, for scamming its customers. The CFPB was Warren’s brainchild and was created as part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulations.
Last week, Republicans on the House Financial Services Committee approved a bill designed to hamstring the CFPB. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is married to Wells Fargo board member Elaine Chao, is attempting to push a bill with similar terms through the Senate.
Senator after senator from both sides of the aisle joined Warren in the pile-on Tuesday. Stumpf’s repeated emphasis that only 1 percent of the bank’s sales force had been involved with what multiple lawmakers called “fraud” lead Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and David Vitter (R-La.) to invoke the prospect of breaking up the bank.
“Every time you say that,” Tester said, referring the the 1 percent excuse, “you give ammunition to the people who want to break up the big banks.”
“Why isn’t this crystal clear proof that an entity as big as Wells is too big to fail, too big to manage, too big to regulate?” Vitter demanded.
Cross-selling was a significant aspect of Wells Fargo’s retail banking strategy, which the bank detailed in Securities and Exchange Commission filings. Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) all suggested that those claims could be grounds for a securities fraud case against Stumpf himself.
“You say you ‘accept responsibility, and it was the fault of those 5,000 people,’” Merkley said. “That’s not accepting responsibility ... you are scapegoating the people at the very bottom.”
In a statement issued Tuesday morning, presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was more circumspect than her fellow Democrats on the banking committee. Though she called Wells Fargo’s behavior “outrageous” and called for compensation to be “clawed back” for responsible executives, Clinton restricted comments about breaking up big banks to the realm of hypothetical future scenarios.
“If any bank can’t be managed effectively, it should be broken up.”
This post has been updated with comment from Clinton as well as additional information from the hearing and regarding legislation that would hamstring the CFPB.