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Wells Fargo CEO Tells Congress Bank’s Culture Not To Blame

On Tuesday, Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf testified before the Senate Banking Committee regarding the company’s recent fraudulent account scandal. Numerous senators, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, called on Stumpf to resign, and argued that the executive who oversaw the fraud should not receive this year’s bonus or all her compensation.

Much of the hearing focused on the culture of Wells Fargo and whether it contributed to over 5,300 Wells Fargo employees fraudulently creating over two million accounts to hit sales goals. Stumpf repeatedly asserted that company culture was not to blame and that the 5,300 employees were “dishonest” people.

Senators countered that the low-level employees were being scapegoated for a company culture that sought to maximize profit at the expense of ethics. Senators focused on the cross-selling program by Wells Fargo that Stumpf had previously told investors was one of the cores of the bank’s business.

Senator Warren read Stumpf statements he had made telling investors that cross-selling was driving the bank’s profit growth. Warren also noted that during the time of the fraud Stumpf’s Wells Fargo stock increased enough to make him roughly $100 million richer.

The cross-selling program incentivized employees to create more and more accounts for customers—if they opened enough new accounts, they received a bonus. If they failed to open enough, they could be fired. To get bonuses and keep their jobs, some employees solved their sales goal problem by creating unauthorized accounts. This incentive system, it was argued at the hearing, fostered a corporate culture that drove employees to be dishonest.

In one case highlighted by Senator Bob Menendez during the hearing, a Wells Fargo employee had personally emailed Stumpf to tell him the cross-selling program was leading to unethical behavior:

At the Senate hearing, Menendez read the New Jersey woman’s 2011 email to Stumpf, where she described improper sales tactics she felt were “wrong.”

“Did you read that email?” Menendez asked Stumpf.

“I don’t remember that one,” Stumpf replied.

“Okay, well she was fired. … So much for the safe haven,” Menendez said.

The unauthorized accounts led to customers receiving fraudulent fees and, in the case of unauthorized credit card accounts, hurting the customer’s credit rating.

The executive that oversaw the program, Carrie Tolstedt, was not fired and is set to retire this year while receiving a bonus. Her total compensation, which includes time when she managed the program, totals roughly $125 million.

At the hearing, Stumpf was asked by senators why Tolstedt was not fired, why there were no clawbacks on her compensation, and why they weren’t stopping this year’s bonus. Stumpf refused to offer an opinion on Tolstedt’s conduct or whether she should receive the compensation she is set to receive, saying it was a matter for Wells Fargo’s board of directors.

So when it came to the lower level employees, they could be fired with cause and labeled dishonest. But when it came to a senior executive, no opinion could be offered nor action immediately taken. Quite a culture.

Dan Wright

Dan Wright

Daniel Wright is a longtime blogger and currently writes for Shadowproof. He lives in New Jersey, by choice.