The chief executive of Wells Fargo, one of the country’s largest banks, stumbled his way through more than four hours of blistering questioning by House members Thursday, struggling to defend the bank over a scandal involving its sales practices.
For the second time in as many weeks, John G. Stumpf sat before lawmakers and apologized for the scandal that resulted in the firing of 5,300 employees and a $185 million fine. This go-round didn’t go much better than the first time.
"Fraud is fraud and theft is theft. What happened at Wells Fargo over the course of many years cannot be described any other way," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. Wells Fargo has turned into a "school for scoundrels," said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.). "I’ve come to the conclusion that Wells Fargo should be broken up,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). "It’s too big to manage and I’m moving forward to break up the bank.”
Stumpf, 63, stayed calm as he questioned by more than a dozen members of the committee. But he often struggled to finish a sentence before lawmakers cut him off to ask him another question or complain that he was dodging the current one.
"I am fully accountable for all unethical sales practices in our retail banking business, and I am fully committed to fixing this issue, strengthening our culture, and taking the necessary actions to restore our customers’ trust," he told the committee.
After being pummeled in the Senate last week, Stumpf told the House committee he recommended that the company’s board rescind $41 million of unvested stock he had been awarded. Carrie Tolstedt, who led the bank's community banking unit where the misconduct occurred, will have to forfeit about $19 million, and both executives will not be eligible for a 2016 bonus.
But that wasn’t enough for lawmakers who, in sometimes tense exchanges, called for Stumpf to resign.
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) said Stumpf was running a "criminal enterprise," noting the bank had been penalized multiple times during the CEO's leadership, and should step down.
"I serve at the pleasure of the board," Stumpf responded.
"Then the entire board needs to go," Meeks said. "Something is going wrong with this bank. If the bucks stops with you," then you should be held responsible.
"The board has that power," Stumpf said. "My energy right now is to lead this company forward."
Some members peppered Stumpf with questions about whether he should be criminally prosecuted.
“Why shouldn’t you be in jail?” asked Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.) “When prosecutors get hold of you, you are going to have a lot of fun.” “Do you think what you did was criminal?” Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) asked. Stumpf responded that he had led the bank with “courage,” but was interrupted again.
For years, Stumpf has strived to set Wells Fargo apart from the giants of Wall Street by focusing on its retail business -- maintaining checking and savings accounts or making mortgage loans. He built a 30-year career as one of the best-known and top-respected bankers in the business, and he repeatedly characterized the problem as involving a small percentage of employees.
“We have a culture based on ethics, and doing what’s right,” Stumpf said to the committee. “I stand with the people who are doing the right thing.”
Several lawmakers noted that despite Stumpf's emphasis on ethics, the bank has been hit with various fines over the past decade, including some linked to the housing crash. Hensarling noted, for example, that the Federal Reserve had found the bank had weak internal controls in 2011 in its mortgage lending business. "If you saw the problem in one area of the business, why wouldn't you do it for the other?" he asked.
Even as the hearing was underway, some lawmakers pointed out that Wells Fargo was being hit on Thursday with a $20 million fine for breaking rules related to loans to service members between 2006 and 2016, including exceeding a 6 percent interest-rate limit for troops and failing to get a court order before repossessing their vehicles.
Wells Fargo has struggled to contain the scandal, which has already sprouted investigations by the Department of Labor and federal prosecutors. On Wednesday, California Treasurer John Chiang imposed sanctions, saying the state would not invest in the firm's stock or use many of its services for a year. On Thursday, several lawmakers, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate whether Wells Fargo and senior officials violated the law by misleading investors.
Some Republican members lamented that Wells Fargo’s action would make it more difficult for lawmakers to lighten the regulatory burdens enacted on the banking industry after the 2008 financial crisis. "The damage you have done to the market and your industry far exceeds the damage you have done to your business," said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.).
During Thursday’s hearing, some lawmakers said the investigations into the company’s conduct should include bringing in executives from other banks to testify on whether the conduct is happening elsewhere. Others want to hold a hearing with Wells Fargo workers, who were either fired for setting up unauthorized accounts or for not meeting the company’s aggressive sales goals. The misconduct likely occurred over a much longer period than Wells Fargo has acknowledged, they said.
“These were people trying to make a living,” said Rep. Al Green (D-Tex.). “These people deserve a fair day, not just an exit from your company… They deserve an opportunity to be heard.”
Stump acknowledged that the bank's leadership should have taken more aggressive action sooner to stop the misconduct. Wells Fargo has already returned more than $2 million to customers who were charged fees for accounts they didn’t authorize, and it is looking for more potential victims, he said. Stumpf said the bank's efforts were costly even before any fines were levied or refunds paid. Just the paperwork involved in opening and closing the sham accounts cost the institution $10 million. This was not a money-making scheme, he said.
As the hearing dragged into its third hour, Stumpf was asked about the show “Undercover Boss” and if he had ever served as a teller when visiting one of the bank’s more than 6,000 branches and experienced the pressure to sell customers more products.
“I’m not trained or permitted to do that,” he said.