The latest allegations of unethical practices at Wells Fargo are so disturbing that even the bank has called them “offensive.”
Former bank employees have signed sworn statements saying that they were told to target immigrants in the U.S. illegally, as well as Native Americans and college students as they sought to open sham accounts to meet the bank’s onerous sales goals.
Submitted as part of a shareholder lawsuit against the bank’s board, the statements by the former employees from California, Utah, Wisconsin and Arizona detail practices they say they were pushed to use to bring in new customers and open accounts — both legitimate and unauthorized.
One former Wells Fargo employee said that managers at his Petaluma branch would regularly send Latino employees to a local 7-Eleven convenience store frequented by day laborers.
“The Wells Fargo employees were instructed to ‘round up’ a group of the undocumented workers and drive them back to the Wells Fargo branch to open checking and savings accounts,” former employee Denny Russo said in the statement. “My colleagues constantly went to and from this location to try to meet their sales goals.”
Speaking at this week’s Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, Wells Fargo Chief Executive Timothy Sloan said the bank did not target immigrants who are in the country illegally and that it would not be logical to do so.
“To target undocumented immigrants makes no sense because you can’t do business with undocumented immigrants by federal law, right?” Sloan said, according to American Banker. “So it’s nonsensical.”
In a statement, Wells Fargo spokesman Ancel Martinez said the practices alleged by former employees never would have been countenanced by the bank.
“Make no mistake, such activities have always been against our policies and values and we are confident our practices and controls to guard against such abuses are stronger than ever,” he said.
As that shareholder lawsuit and other cases continue, more stories of unethical practices may come out, adding to the already substantial toll the bank’s accounts scandal has had on its reputation.
“Employers seem very powerful and people are often afraid to come forward,” said Alexandra Lahav, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law. “But as people come forward, more people feel empowered to do the same. That’s why events like this are a big risk for companies.”
Though Wells Fargo has agreed to pay $185 million to regulators and $142 million to settle a raft of consumer lawsuits, the bank still faces two lawsuits filed by shareholders and a third filed by former employees.
The case that includes allegations that the bank targeted immigrants and other groups was filed in San Francisco Superior Court last year.
Shareholders allege executives and board members failed to properly oversee the bank’s practices, including the drastic measures workers felt forced to take to meet onerous goals set by regional managers.
Kelsey Hess, who worked at a Wells Fargo branch in a suburb of Salt Lake City, said in her statement that employees were encouraged to go to nearby construction sites, seek out workers there who were in the country illegally, and open unauthorized accounts in their names.
Ricky Hansen Jr., a former Wells Fargo employee in Arizona, said the bank pushed credit card accounts on local Native Americans who went to Wells Fargo branches to cash tribal checks.
“In the weeks following each check-cashing day, the Indian community members would flood the store with complaints about unwanted accounts, debit and credit cards they did not order, over-drafted accounts and account fees for accounts they never requested,” Hansen said in his declaration.
Angela Payden, who worked at a branch in Hudson, Wisc., said employees at her branch would drive to a University of Wisconsin campus 12 miles away, sign students up for checking accounts, then open other accounts in students’ names.
Wells Fargo has acknowledged that workers may have opened as many as 2.1 million unauthorized checking, savings and credit card accounts between 2011 and 2015 — and has fired 5,300 for allegedly violating its standards. But in its own statement it called the former employees’ assertions “offensive” and a “violation of policies we have in place to safeguard against abuses.”
Attorneys for Wells Fargo and its board members are seeking to have the case dismissed and argued in court filings this week that Judge Curtis Karnow should for now disregard the employees’ statements. A hearing in that case is scheduled for next week.
In a separate but similar lawsuit, a federal district judge in San Francisco this week rejected the bank’s motion to dismiss, allowing the case to proceed.
In that case, also filed against board members by Wells Fargo shareholders, Judge Jon S. Tigar said it appears the shareholders make a strong argument that board members “knew about widespread illegal activity and consciously disregarded their fiduciary duties to oversee and monitor the company.”
Attorneys for Wells Fargo and its board members had argued the case should be dismissed on procedural grounds.
Kevin Lindahl, general counsel for one of the lead plaintiffs in the case, the Fire and Police Pension Assn. of Colorado, said the pension fund looks forward “to vigorously prosecuting this case.”
Along with the two shareholder suits, the bank is facing a lawsuit filed by a handful of Wells Fargo employees who say they were fired, demoted, denied promotions and forced to work without pay because they refused to resort to unethical practices to meet sales goals.
The bank has not yet responded to that case, filed in federal court in San Francisco in December.
Martinez, the Wells Fargo spokesman, said the bank “cannot speculate on pending claims, however, we will advocate strongly for our positions before the court.”
Shareholder and employee cases against the bank might be able to proceed to the point where the bank will have to turn over documents and other evidence, which could shed more light on the bank’s practices. None of the numerous cases filed by bank customers has made it to that point as courts have pushed those cases into private arbitration.
The bank also remains under investigation by the federal Department of Justice, the California Attorney General’s office and other agencies.
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