WASHINGTON – Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf faced calls for his resignation and possible criminal prosecution from U.S. senators Tuesday over the possible creation of 2 million fake customer accounts that improperly padded employees’ sales bonuses.
Stumpf, a Minnesota native who rose to become one of the country’s highest paid bankers, said he was “deeply sorry” about the bogus accounts, which resulted in $185 million in fines, at least $2.6 million in refunds to customers who paid unnecessary fees, and a 9 percent drop in share price in a week.
Wells Fargo announced policy changes ahead of Stumpf’s testimony before the Senate Banking Committee that eliminated “all product sales goals in retail banking.” The company has also fired 5,300 employees involved in creating the fake accounts.
None of that tempered the anger of the executive’s Capitol Hill inquisitors.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., called for Stumpf to resign and be investigated criminally. She accused Stumpf of “gutless leadership” and sharply criticized the amount of money he made on the appreciation of company shares that he owned while the unauthorized accounts boosted sales and stock prices.
Ranking minority member Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, called what Wells Fargo did “fraud.” “This was fraud you did not find,” Brown told Stumpf.
Stumpf, whose career rose through the former Norwest Corp. in Minneapolis before it combined into Wells Fargo, acknowledged that the bank had violated the trust of some customers. But he would not say that what happened was fraud.
He denied that strategies aiming for as many as eight accounts per household created an atmosphere that encouraged the creation of the unauthorized accounts.
He said Wells Fargo did not disclose problems with the unauthorized accounts to shareholders in securities filings because they were not considered “a material financial event.”
Stumpf also faced sharp questions about the compensation of Carrie Tolstedt, the senior executive who headed the sales department where the violations occurred. Tolstedt retired from Wells Fargo this summer and is reportedly in line to receive more than $100 million in salary, stock options and other compensation.
The fact that Tolstedt was not fired and could keep so much money caused committee chairman Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., to ask Stumpf to tell the “American public” what corporate accountability should look like.
Stumpf could not say exactly when he first learned of the unauthorized accounts.
The Los Angeles Times brought the Wells Fargo scam to light in late 2013 based on whistleblower complaints, and the Los Angeles city attorney took on the case. The U.S. Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) also entered the case.
Wells Fargo conducted an internal analysis of sales practices that revealed that employees had opened more than 2 million deposit and credit card accounts since 2011 that may have been unauthorized.
Stumpf sent account holders an e-mail apology Sept. 14, six days after the CFPB announced the charges and settlement. “Last week’s news did not reflect Wells Fargo at its best,” Stumpf said.
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., likened the language of the e-mail to the “Sgt. Schultz approach,” harking back to the character from the “Hogan’s Heroes” TV comedy famous for saying “I know nothing. I see nothing.”
The banking committee homed in on what it considered a flawed corporate culture at Wells Fargo, which was described by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., as “toxic.” Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., read to Stumpf correspondence from a Wells Fargo manager who Menendez said was fired for refusing to participate in the creation of unauthorized accounts and for reporting the practice up the chain of command.
Menendez called the problem at Wells Fargo not a few bad apples but a rotten orchard. He said blaming low-level employees for the problem was “despicable.”
Menendez compared the salary of personal bankers being pushed to create multiple accounts — roughly $35,000 a year — with senior executives like Stumpf, who made $19.3 million in 2015.
Senators grilled Stumpf for more than two hours after he read a prepared statement emphasizing the small number of employees involved in the scandal — the bank employs more than 260,000 people — and announcing that the company may extend refunds for aggrieved customers to the years 2009 and 2010, as well as from 2011 on.
Wells Fargo now seeks a customer confirmation within an hour of the creation of a new deposit or credit account, as well as a customer signature before a credit report is accessed, Stumpf said.
“I do want to make very clear that there was no orchestrated effort, or scheme as some have called it, by the company,” Stumpf said in his prepared remarks. “We never directed nor wanted our employees ... to provide products and services to customers they did not want or need.”
Much of what Stumpf offered as corrective actions were dismissed by committee members as too little too late.
“This is not nearly what I had hoped you would come with,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., told Stumpf.
The practice of “cross-selling” of multiple products to single customers had been one of the hallmarks of Stumpf’s tenure at Wells Fargo. Shelby pointed to statements Stumpf made in 2010 that encouraged employees to aim to sell eight accounts to each customer because “eight is great.”
CFPB Director Richard Cordray would not say whether his agency has recommended a criminal investigation of Wells Fargo. He said cross-selling is not isolated to Wells Fargo but that the bank was the industry leader.
Stumpf, born in Pierz, Minn., received his undergraduate degree at St. Cloud State University and his MBA at the University of Minnesota. In 1982, he joined Northwestern National Bank in Minneapolis and worked his way up in what would become Norwest Corp.
Norwest bought Wells Fargo in 1998, took the Wells name and moved its top executives to San Francisco. Stumpf became CEO in 2007.
Stumpf’s place on the political hot seat is almost certainly not over. The House Financial Services Committee is investigating Wells Fargo sales tactics and has indicated it will want to hear from the CEO soon.