Elizabeth Warren called Wells Fargo CEO ‘gutless.’ Then it got worse.
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WASHINGTON — Senator Elizabeth Warren confronted the chief executive of Wells Fargo Tuesday, accusing him of "gutless leadership" and calling for his resignation during a hostile Senate hearing focused on the bank's years-long practice of creating phony accounts in customers' names.
Warren also demanded that the CEO, John Stumpf, return millions in personal compensation and face criminal investigation for his role overseeing a bank where regulators say as many as 2 million fake bank and credit card accounts were opened by employees under intense pressure to meet steep sales goals and reap bonuses.
''You squeezed your employees to the breaking point so they would cheat customers and you could drive up the value of your stock and put hundreds of millions of dollars in your own pocket," Warren said.
Republicans and Democrats alike harshly criticized Wells Fargo's behavior Tuesday. The bipartisan anger signaled a fresh round of political turmoil for the nation's biggest financial institutions, and the chairman of the Senate panel urged federal regulators to look into other banks to see if they, too, were employing unethical tactics to boost business.
Banks have waged intense lobbying battles in Washington since the 2008 Wall Street meltdown, yet have remained the focus of populist anger — especially in this election year.
Wells Fargo earlier this month agreed to pay $185 million in fines to regulators over the allegations, though the bank did not have to admit wrongdoing as part of the settlement. The bank has said more than 5,300 employees, almost entirely from the bank's lower ranks, have been fired since 2011 as a result of unethical sales.
On Tuesday, under intense questioning from Warren and other senators, Stumpf said no senior-level executives had lost their jobs in the scandal. Stumpf, who earned $19.3 million in 2015, apologized repeatedly during his two-hour turn in the witness seat.
"I am deeply sorry," he said in opening statement. He said Wells Fargo's executives did not move fast enough to quash the practices. "We should have done better," he said.
Stumpf acknowledged that the bank should have done more than just fire employees caught engaging in unethical sales practices, which it did as the result of internal investigations. He said Wells Fargo also should have ended the bonus program that helped drive the bogus account creation. The bank recently announced it was ending its aggressive sales targets by Jan. 1.
"We should have done more sooner to eliminate unethical conduct and unintended incentives for that conduct to occur," he said. Stumpf also defended the bank by listing a number of internal steps it took, including hiring a consulting firm in 2015 to figure out how many customers were harmed.
But he had no clear answers to why he and other senior bank leaders weren't aware of the problems until 2013, when the Los Angeles Times published allegations of fraudulent activity, and why senior managers haven't been held accountable.
Stumpf's contrition did little to temper the anger pouring out from both sides of the aisle. Not a single member of the Senate panel came to Stumpf's defense. Only Warren and Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, called for Stumpf's resignation.
"This isn't cross-selling. This is fraud," charged Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey, who then proceeded to read the legal dictionary definition of fraud to Stumpf.
"Cross-selling'' refers to the practice of pushing multiple products to customers; Wells Fargo was considered an industry leader in the practice. "Wells Fargo executives were completely out of touch," Toomey said.
Democrats and Republicans expressed dismay that the executive in charge in the division where the problems occurred, Carrie Tolstedt, is set to retire this year with a payout in the neighborhood of $100 million or more. Stumpf told senators Tuesday that the bank's compensation committee is discussing whether they should "claw back" or revoke some of that, but declined to weigh in on the issue despite being pressed by multiple senators.
He also indicated that Tolstedt was allowed to retire, rather than be fired for the problems under her watch.
Senator Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, said it would be "malpractice" if the bank didn't take back some amount of compensation paid to Stumpf and other executives.
The banking panel's Republican chairman, Richard Shelby of Alabama, closed the nearly four-hour hearing by telling regulators to look into similar activity at other banks.
"A lot of us are worried that there are similar goings on in other banks," Shelby said.
At one point in the hearing, Warren asked Stumpf. "Have you returned one nickel of the money that you earned while this scandal was going on?"
The Massachusetts Democrat's dressing-down of Stumpf illustrated in made-for-YouTube snippets just how potent the politics of Wall Street and consumer financial affairs remain so many years after the economy has recovered from the 2008 financial crisis.
It also highlighted the watchdog role of the agency that investigated and levied the biggest portion of fines, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was Warren's brainchild and was created in the 2010 Dodd-Frank reform law.
Jaret Seiberg, an analyst with Cowen Washington Research Group, said in a note to clients that Stumpf came off in the hearing as though he wasn't "in charge" despite his role of CEO and chairman of Wells Fargo. He added that Stumpf's performance "reinforces our worry that Washington will conclude that mega banks are too big to manage." That increases the risk Congress will take action to scale them back or break them up, he said.
Senator Jon Tester of Montana, a Democrat, told Stumpf that every time he points out the bank fired 5,300 people as a result of the problems, "you give ammunition to the folks who want to break up the big banks. Fifty-three hundred people are more people than live in most towns in Montana."
Hillary Clinton seized on that theme earlier Tuesday in an open letter to Wells Fargo customers.
"We need to make sure that no financial institution is too big to manage," she wrote, hitting strongly on the anti-Wall Street themes that helped fuel Bernie Sanders's primary challenge against her. "And if any bank can't be managed effectively, it should be broken up."
Underlying the controversy is a partisan divide over the future of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Many Republicans continue to support changes that would curb the consumer agency's powers. But Democrats say the GOP wants to neuter it.
Warren, Clinton, and other Democrats argue that the Wells Fargo settlement demonstrates how necessary the agency is to protect average Americans from unscrupulous financial firms.
Republicans raised questions about why federal regulators, including the protection bureau, didn't discover the fraudulent activity much earlier and act sooner to quash it.
Wells Fargo's internal review shows unauthorized accounts being opened at least as early as 2011, and the activity may have been happening earlier than that, said Shelby, a longtime bureau critic.
"This timeline begs the question: Where were the federal regulators during those years?" he asked.