WASHINGTON — Wells Fargo’s chief executive Timothy Sloan on Tuesday defended the mega bank against withering criticism from lawmakers that it has not done enough to reform itself since admitting last year it had opened millions of fake accounts customers didn’t want.
‘‘I am angry about how we handled these problems,’’ Sloan told the Senate Banking Committee. ‘‘We can never let something like this happen again.’’
The bank has overhauled its community banking division where the problems occurred, ditched the aggressive sales goals that led some employees to open fake accounts, and taken back millions in bonus money from senior executives, he said.
Sloan’s sales pitch appeared to fail to impress skeptical lawmakers. ‘‘What in God’s name were you thinking? I am not against big, but with all due respect, I am against dumb. I am against a business practice that puts Wells Fargo first and customers second,’’ said Senator John Neely Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana.
The changes the company has made, ‘‘are not sufficient to reform a corporate culture that is willing to abuse its customers and employees in an effort to pad its numbers and increase executive compensation,’’ said Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, the ranking Democrat on the committee.
In one blistering exchange, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a longtime Wall Street critic, questioned whether Sloan’s 30 years experience at the bank made him the right choice to reform its corporate culture. Warren brought out a large black binder filled with the transcripts of statements Sloan had made to investors over several years, noting how in several cases he appeared to be bragging about the company’s sales culture. ‘‘No one bragged more,’’ she said.
By focusing on the company’s track record for opening new accounts, Sloan helped boost the company’s stock price, she said. But it was that aggressive sales culture that led Wells Fargo employees to open millions of fake accounts, she said.
‘‘At best, you were incompetent, and at worst, you were complicit,’’ Warren told him. ‘‘Either way, you should be fired.’’
Sloan, who was wearing a red-and-gold Wells Fargo pin, defended his track record at the bank and said Wells Fargo was doing more right than wrong.
‘‘The reason I am the right person [to lead the bank is] I have been making changes at this company for 30 years,’’ Sloan said. His knowledge of the bank allowed him to make fundamental changes, he said. ‘‘I am not afraid to make hard decisions.’’
Warren shot back ‘‘Are you kidding?’’ There is a broken culture at Wells Fargo that still needs to be changed, she said. ‘‘Wells Fargo is not going to change with you in charge.’’
The exchanges between Sloan and lawmakers were hauntingly similar to the beating Wells Fargo took on Capitol Hill last year when its former chief executive John Stumpf was pummeled by lawmakers for hours as he attempted to explain why the mega bank had created millions of fake accounts that customers didn’t want or need. After a dismal performance, Stumpf stepped down.
Sloan acknowledged that precedence, saying he was determined to do better. ‘‘When my predecessor testified here last year, we had not fully grappled with the damage the sales practices scandal had done to our customers, our team members, and their trust in the bank,’’ Sloan said. ‘‘But I heard you — and I heard our customers and our team members — loud and clear. You expect us to do better, and so do we.’’
At times Sloan appeared frustrated as he was repeatedly interrupted by lawmakers during the more than two-hour hearing. He repeatedly apologized for the bank’s conduct and was stern when they pressed him on some issues, including when questioned about Wells Fargo’s practice of requiring customers to agree to settle disputes with the bank through arbitration rather than by filing a class-action lawsuit.
‘‘Will you commit to this committee that you will stop requiring forced arbitration?’’ Brown said.
‘‘No, I won’t, senator,’’ Sloan said.
Part of the problem for Sloan is that the bank has come under renewed criticism recently after it revealed that the creation of fake accounts had gone on for far longer than it initially acknowledged and that it had found more than 1 million new potential cases. Rather than creating up to 2 million fake accounts, the bank said it was probably 3.5 million. It also said in August that for six years, about 570,000 of its customers were charged for auto insurance they didn’t need, driving some to default on their loans and have their cars repossessed.
Sloan argued that the bank has already paid a price for that misconduct. Its longtime chief executive, Stumpf, gave up millions in bonuses and the chairman of its board will be replaced starting next year. Wells Fargo also has paid $185 million in fines to regulators and reached a preliminary settlement of a class-action lawsuit for more than $100 million.
‘‘Wells Fargo is a better bank today than it was a year ago. And next year, Wells Fargo will be a better bank than it is today. That is because we have spent the past year determined to earn back the public’s trust,’’ Sloan said.
But that was not enough for some lawmakers. Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, suggested that regulators should consider revoking the bank’s charter and shutting it down entirely. Sloan responded by emphasizing that the bank has more than 270,000 employees and provides services to one in three American households. ‘‘So you’re too big?’’ Schatz shot back.