In less than 10 minutes, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren all but destroyed Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf’s excuses for the wide-scale fraud that occurred on his watch, accusing him of presiding over a scam that not only ripped off millions of customers but also boosted the pay of senior executives like himself.
Until Tuesday morning, Strumpf had all but pinned the blame for the scandal—in which Wells Fargo employees opened an estimated 2 million bank and credit card accounts for customers without their permission—on the company’s rank and file, who were seemingly desperate to keep up with the bank’s unrealistic sales goals, and who often only earned $11 or $12 an hour. “So, you haven't resigned, you haven't returned a single nickel of your personal earnings, you haven't fired a single senior executive,” Warren told Stumpf. “Instead, evidently, your definition of accountable is to push the blame to your low-level employees who don't have the money for a fancy PR firm to defend themselves. It's gutless leadership.”
Warren went on to point out that Wells Fargo did not aggressively investigate the fraud for years, even as the problems continued to grow. Even as media outlets like the Los Angeles Times wrote about them, and even as the bank conducted its own internal investigations and trainings for employees designed to stop them from engaging in less than ethical sales practices, Stumpf boasted of the bank’s cross-selling prowess on investor calls with stock market analysts. “While this scam was going on, you personally held an average of 6.75 million shares of Wells stock. The share price during this time period went up by about $30, which comes out to more than $200 million in gains all for you personally. And thanks in part to those cross-sell numbers that you talked about on every one of those calls.”
Warren than went on to call for government authorities to investigate Stumpf for fraud. “You should give back the money that you took while this scam was going on, and you should be criminally investigated by both the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission.”
Finally, Warren linked the scandal to the housing crisis and the bank behavior that went unpunished even as millions of Americans lost their homes to foreclosure or otherwise saw their financial lives torpedoed, even as bank executives continued to rake in millions of dollars in annual bonuses.
A few other things from Stumpf’s testimony are worth noting. He seemed less than entirely prepared for the barrage of hostile questions. At one point he claimed he was “not an expert” on compensation and that he would leave questions about whether Carrie Tolstedt, the senior bank executive in charge of Wells Fargo bank branches at the time of the fraud, should have part of her pay clawed back to the bank’s board. (Stumpf is chairman of Wells Fargo’s board. Yes, senators quickly reminded him of that fact.) He also contradicted previous statements by a Wells Fargo spokeswoman who denied Tolstedt’s retirement was as a result of the scandal, saying her exit was prompted, in part, by changes the bank was making in the wake of the scandal.
Stumpf also apologized for the bank’s behavior. But not only was it too little, too late, it didn’t seem to register with him that a personal apology was not enough. There need to be consequences, the senators stressed. Let’s give Warren the final word:
This just isn't right. A cashier who steals a handful of $20s is held accountable, but Wall Street executives who almost never hold themselves accountable, not now and not in 2008 when they crushed the worldwide economy. The only way that Wall Street will change is if executives face jail time when they preside over massive frauds. We need tough, new laws to hold corporate executives personally accountable, and we need tough prosecutors who have the courage to go after people at the top. Until then, it will be business as usual.
Let’s hope this blast changes things.