In a tense exchange, Senator Elizabeth Warren badgered Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf on why he had not offered to give up any of his compensation or to resign in the wake of the fake accounts controversy. (Reuters)

 

The most anticipated face-off of Tuesday's Senate Banking Committee hearing did not disappoint: Democratic firebrand Sen. Elizabeth Warren grilled Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf in a blistering exchange where she accused him of "gutless leadership."

In two turns behind the microphone, Warren (D-Mass.) excoriated Stumpf, repeating questions to try to get him to answer them, turning the bank's own words against him, and using the opportunity to make a moral case for banking reforms.

[Wells Fargo CEO pummeled on Capitol Hill over multi-year scam]

During the hearing, senator after senator expressed astonishment that the creation of unauthorized deposit and credit card accounts by Wells Fargo employees could have gone on for so long without more assertive action by senior management. But Warren turned that line of questioning personal, suggesting the "cross-selling" strategy that prompted some employees to make the phony accounts enriched Stumpf's own stock portfolio.

"While this scam was going on, you personally held an average of 6.75 million shares of Wells Fargo stock," Warren said. "The share price during this time went up by about $30, which comes out to more than $200 million in gains, all for you personally," Warren said.

Warren's plain-language questions, context-setting remarks and call for tough penalties show why she has become such a feared figure among Wall Street executives. "You should resign," Warren said at the end of a near-monologue about the broader failures of the banking system. "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."

In his responses, Stumpf was either frequently interrupted or forced into answers that had him repeating his talking points again and again. "Have you returned one nickel of the millions of dollars that you were paid while this scam was going on?" Warren asked three times, before unleashing repeated questions about whether Stumpf had fired any senior executives.

"So you haven’t resigned," she said. "You haven’t returned a single nickel of your personal earnings. You haven’t fired a single senior executive. 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 continued to rip into Stumpf, casting the situation in moral terms and using her time behind the microphone to call for broader, harsher consequences for banking leaders. "The only way that Wall Street will change is if executives face jail time when they preside over massive frauds," she said. "We need tough new laws to hold corporate executives personally accountable. We need tough prosecutors who have the courage to go after the people at the top until then it will be business as usual." 

In the first exchange, Stumpf got in only about 100 words of his own in response to Warren's questions. When asked if he had fired any senior executives, he first tried to say the bank had made a change at the regional bank level, only to have Warren slam his response; "I just said, I’m not asking about regional managers. I’m not asking about branch managers. I’m asking if you have you fired senior management." 

[Wells Fargo’s terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad week]

In at least a couple of instances, she used the bank's own words against him. She began by reading from the bank's "vision and values statement," which says "we believe in values lived, not phrases memorized," and "if you want to find out how strong a company's ethics are, don't listen to what its people say. Watch what they do."

So, she said, "let's do that," noting Stumpf had repeatedly said "I'm accountable." Then she drilled into questions where he was unable to affirmatively answer that he had resigned, handed back money he'd earned or fired any senior executives.

Warren also repeated questions that forced Stumpf to awkwardly stick to his talking points. In the second exchange, Warren asked whether Stumpf would personally support -- after he clarified he is not a member of the bank's compensation committee -- recommending a "clawback" of pay awarded to Carrie Tolstedt, the executive who led the community banking division where the false accounts were created. At least eight times, Stumpf replied there was a board process with which he did not want to interfere.

[In Wells Fargo hearing, executive pay ‘clawbacks’ are likely to take center stage]

Growing visibly frustrated, Warren was incredulous when Stumpf said he had not considered firing Tolstedt, who the bank announced announced in July would be retiring but remains employed at Wells Fargo. "Seriously? You found out that one of your divisions had created two million fake accounts, had fired thousands of employees for improper behavior and had cheated thousands of your own customers, and you didn’t even once consider firing her ahead of her retirement?" 

She then commented on a response from Wells Fargo to a letter she and other senators had sent, which said Tolstedt would remain eligible for an incentive bonus this year. "Mr Stumpf, that is unbelievable." 

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