Were Wells Fargo employees under unfair sales pressure?

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GWEN IFILL: The CEO of Wells Fargo appeared on Capitol Hill and faced a barrage of questions about the bank’s conduct under his leadership, and why employees opened nearly two million phony accounts.

Regulators say employees, under pressure to meet sales goals, had secretly created unauthorized bank and credit card accounts for customers, since 2011, without their knowledge.

Today, bank chairman John Stumpf apologized before the Senate Banking Committee.

JOHN STUMPF, CEO, Wells Fargo: I am deeply sorry that we failed to fulfill on our responsibility to our customers, to our team members and to the American public. We never directed, nor wanted our team members to provide products and services to customers that they didn’t want.

That is not good for our customers, and that is not good for our business. It is against everything we stand for as a company.

GWEN IFILL: More than 5,000 workers, mostly lower-level, have been fired. But senators on both sides of the aisle said it was Stumpf who should be paying the price.

Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren:

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-Mass.): So, you haven’t resigned. 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 P.R. firm to defend themselves. It’s gutless leadership.

You squeezed your employees to the breaking point, so they would cheat customers and you could drive up the value of your stock and put hundreds of millions of dollars in your own pocket. And when it all blew up, you kept your job. You kept your multimillion-dollar bonuses.

GWEN IFILL: We turn now to Michael Corkery, who’s been reporting on the story for The New York Times.

Michael, you were in the room today, in the hearing chamber today, and you saw the outrage that was expressed by Republicans and Democrats, not just Elizabeth Warren, but also David Vitter. Outrage is easy. What’s the fix that — the fix they’re asking for?

MICHAEL CORKERY, The New York Times: Well, I think they want more accountability.

I mean, this fraud was extraordinary for how widespread it was. I mean, it affected thousands of customers. We’re talking upwards of two million potentially fake — they created — accounts by Wells Fargo employees; 5,300 bank workers, mostly low-level, low-paid bank workers have been fired, but I think what the committee was focused on and what Elizabeth Warren in particular was taking up the charge for was that none of the senior executives seem to have been affected, either losing their jobs or taking back some of their compensation.

GWEN IFILL: How long have senior executives known about this problem?

MICHAEL CORKERY: Well, John Stumpf said he knew — he first knew about it in 2013, though the problems may have gone back to 2011.

But even 2013, this problem has been going on for three years in some form or another. Those employees that have been fired have been fired over a period of five years. And, you know, even up to this year, people were being fired at the bank for this behavior, low-level workers.

So I think, again, the committee was focused on, why didn’t you do more sooner to take care of this problem and get rid of it?

GWEN FILL: Now, some employees said that this problem propped up because of a culture of competition at Wells Fargo. What are they talking about?

MICHAEL CORKERY: Wells is a very hard-driving bank. It’s very successful, very profitable.

Stock has been on a tear. What they say is that employees were under these — enormous pressure to meet these sales goals, to open as many new accounts as they can. In fact, John Stumpf wanted all bank customers — one of his goals was to have every bank customer have eight accounts, eight products with Wells Fargo.

It’s an enormous amount of products. I mean, if you think, well, you have got a loan, or a checking account, a savings account. And so these employees thought they were unrealistic. They said they were totally unrealistic.

And in order the meet them, not just to gain big bonuses, but just to keep their jobs, they felt compelled to meet these. And in order to do that, many of these former employees said they needed to bend the rules, they need to fake them.

GWEN IFILL: Is there a dollar number you can put on a number of accounts, the dollar impact on actual account holders who found out that they held a lot more accounts in their name than they realized?

MICHAEL CORKERY: Right now, regulators, particularly the CFPB, started by Elizabeth Warren, has put the number at about $2 million.

It’s not a big number, when you consider the extent of the fraud. And that’s what’s kind of weird here, is that, yes, these fees meant things to people. These were overdraft fees. These were late fees on credit cards they didn’t know they had.

But, again, it was happening in ways where sometimes a bank employee would open up an account for someone, the person didn’t know it, and then two days later they would close it. And they would just do it just to get credit for the sale. And it suggests that this selling culture was so broken, that it wasn’t even making the bank money. It was just meeting goals for the sake of meeting goals.

GWEN IFILL: But some of the sympathy in the hearing today seemed to be for employees who were fired, who they think were treated as scapegoats?

MICHAEL CORKERY: Yes.

I think if — they kept coming back to this point over and over, again, 5,000 employees. And these are people mostly who make about $12 an hour. Those are the ones who have been fired. At this point, other than the few, as John Stumpf said quite vaguely, managers and managers of managers, nobody in the C suite, no big, top executive has lost their job.

And I think that has the optics at least of the little guy gets squeezed and gets hurt and takes the fall, and the big CEOs get off.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Corkery of The New York Times, thank you very much.

MICHAEL CORKERY: Thank you.

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