House lawmakers slam Wells Fargo chief exec

WASHINGTON – Angry lawmakers heaped another round of blistering criticism on Wells Fargo’s CEO, pressing Thursday for details about what senior managers knew about allegedly illegal sales practices and when any concerns were disclosed.

Chief Executive John Stumpf, newly stripped of tens of millions in compensation, told the House Financial Services Committee that the bank is expanding its review of accounts and will evaluate executives’ roles. But during the grilling he received last week from a Senate panel, Stumpf remained on the defensive.

Several lawmakers, both Republican and Democrat, alleged that Wells Fargo’s sales practices may have violated federal laws, including the federal racketeering laws, which would constitute a criminal offense. Federal regulators have not said if they have referred the Wells Fargo case to the Department of Justice.

“Fraud is fraud. Theft is theft,” committee head Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, told Stumpf.

The panel’s senior Democrat, Rep. Maxine Waters of California, was adamant that the alleged abuses show that the second-largest U.S. bank is too big for senior executives to keep track of what’s going on. “I have come to the conclusion that Wells Fargo should be broken up,” she said.

Stumpf reiterated his previous words, that he was “deeply sorry.” He said the bank was looking at accounts further back, to 2009, and that an inquiry by Wells Fargo’s outside directors will review executives’ roles “across the board.”

U.S. and California regulators have fined San Francisco-based Wells Fargo $185 million, saying bank employees trying to meet sales targets opened up to 2 million fake deposit and credit card accounts without customers’ knowledge. Regulators said they issued and activated debit cards, and signed people up for online banking without permission. The abuses are said to have gone on for years, unchecked by senior management.

Stumpf finally shared some basic information about the potential victims, saying those affected skewed to younger Wells customers. When questioned by lawmakers, Stumpf also gave some state-by-state breakdowns, including for Georgia, Delaware, Texas, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Missouri. When asked by The Associated Press for a complete state-by-state count, a Wells spokeswoman declined to share that information.

The bank says customers already have been refunded $2.6 million in fees from unauthorized products.

Wells Fargo also was hit with more penalties Thursday. The Justice Department and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency announced a total of $24.1 million in civil penalties against the company for alleged violations of a law intended to protect military service members from predatory financial practices.

The OCC, a division of the Treasury Department, said its $20 million penalty is for Wells Fargo’s failure to honor an interest cap and other violations. In a settlement with the Justice Department, the bank is paying $4.1 million to resolve allegations it repossessed 413 cars owned by service members without obtaining court orders.

For more than five hours Thursday, Stumpf came under a sustained assault from lawmakers. He insisted that Wells Fargo had taken actions prior to 2013 to bolster its legal compliance and maintain high ethical standards.