Wells Fargo CEO Timothy Sloan appeared before the House Financial Services Committee today to testify at a hearing titled, “Holding Megabanks Accountable: An Examination of Wells Fargo’s Pattern of Consumer Abuses.” That pretty much set the tone for the entire day.
A quick refresher: Over the past few decades, Wells Fargo has been quite possibly the worst, most abusive bank in America. In just the past few years, the bank has paid nearly $800 million in fines to state and local governments for opening millions of unauthorized and fake accounts in order to meet sales goals.
That’s not all. Over the past several years, Wells Fargo has been slapped with fines for abuses involving members of the military (including charging them higher interest rates, improperly repossessing their cars without a court order, and not disclosing their military status to courts while trying to evict them), numerous allegations of racism, and other consumer abuses.
After laying out several cases of Wells Fargo ripping off vulnerable people, Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters neatly summarized Wells Fargo’s abuses in the hearing. “What this long but impartial list makes clear is that Wells Fargo is a recidivist financial institution that creates widespread harms with a broad range of offenses,” Waters said in her opening statement.
It didn’t get easier from there.
Sporting a Wells Fargo pin and a demeanor of deeply not wanting to be there, Sloan—the bank’s former chief financial officer who took the reins over the company in the fallout from the fake accounts scandal—attempted to make his case that Wells Fargo’s culture of predatory capitalism is actually changing, honest.
“The past few years have taught us that our company does well by doing right. But doing right does not stop with simply repairing harm and rebuilding trust,” Sloan, who was last seen in the halls of Congress getting dragged to hell and back by Elizabeth Warren, said in prepared remarks.
“With all of this experience and the length of time you’ve been there and the roles you have played, you have not been able to keep Wells Fargo out of trouble. You keep getting fined,” Waters told Sloan pointedly during her questioning. She then asked, “Why should Wells Fargo continue to be the size that it is?” (Sloan’s answer, that the culture of the company is changing and that there’s a new “customer focus,” did not satisfy Waters.)
Later, Rep. Brad Sherman, another Democrat from California, tore into Sloan for “refusing to let people go to court” against the bank for opening accounts on their behalf that they never signed up for.
Over the weekend, the New York Times published a report on Wells Fargo’s company culture in which employees alleged “heavy pressure to squeeze extra money out of customers,” and having “witnessed colleagues bending or breaking internal rules to meet ambitious performance goals.” Sloan called that story “patently not true,” and that the bank “disagrees with almost every single word in that New York Times article.”
As has so often been the case in the past two months, House Democratic freshmen asked some of the toughest questions. Rep. Katie Porter, a first-year Democrat from California, asked Sloan if his statements about customers being able to trust Wells Fargo “meant something” to him, and then whipped out a sign showing that Wells Fargo’s own lawyers, in an ongoing case where Sloan was named as a defendant, argued that those statements were “paraidgmatic [sic] examples of non-actionable corporate puffery on which no reasonable investor could rely.”
“Are you lying to a federal judge, or are you lying to me and this Congress right now on whether we can rely on those statements?” Porter asked. “Neither,” Sloan replied.
Several Democrats, such as Rep. Carolyn Maloney and Ayanna Pressley, used their turns to sharply criticize Wells Fargo for its relationship with the NRA and the firearms industry. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, meanwhile, slammed the bank for having its grubby paws all over some of the worst human rights abuses in the U.S., such as private prisons, ICE detention facilities, and the Dakota Access pipeline. “Why was the bank involved in the financing of caging of children to begin with?” Ocasio-Cortez asked Sloan. Sloan said they weren’t “directly involved in that.”
Regarding the Dakota Access pipeline, Ocasio-Cortez asked whether or not Sloan and Wells Fargo should be held accountable for financing clean-ups for leaks and spills from pipelines financed by the company. Sloan responded that they shouldn’t, because they were just financing the pipeline, and didn’t build it. “Our team reviewed the environmental impact and concluded it was a risk we were willing to take,” Sloan said. Great answer.
It’s true that because Wells Fargo is the comic book villain of the American banking system, they’re an easy target for both Republicans and banking-friendly Democrats to prove that they’re tough on the industry when they need to be. But, perhaps because Republicans have controlled both chambers of Congress for the past four years, it was extremely refreshing to see some members make a fundamental indictment of the American banking system and the utter lack of consequences banks and those at the top face.