Can New CEO Tim Sloan Fix Scandal-Plagued Wells Fargo’s Corporate Culture?

AP Photo/Richard Drew

Wells Fargo Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Timothy J. Sloan is interviewed on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Wednesday, November 13, 2013. 

Scandal-plagued Wells Fargo’s recent selection of long-time bank insider Tim Sloan to replace John Stumpf as its CEO has done little to mollify critics, given Sloan’s central management role during more than a decade of consumer and community complaints.

Sloan has largely escaped scrutiny during the thumping Wells Fargo has taken from Congress, the media, and bank reform activists for boosting its own stock price by secretly creating more than two million unauthorized checking and credit-card accounts. As lawmakers and state and federal regulators line up to investigate the bank following Stumpf’s resignation, Sloan now replaces him on the hot seat. Sloan’s role as a member of the bank’s inner circle at a time when Wells Fargo stood accused of reckless and discriminatory practices is sure to interest investigators.

“I remain concerned that incoming CEO Tim Sloan is also culpable in the recent scandal, serving in a central role in the chain of command that ought to have stopped this misconduct from happening,” said House Democrat Maxine Waters, of California, in a statement. Waters is the ranking Democratic on the House Financial Service Committee, which is investigating Wells Fargo, as are the Senate Banking Committee, the Justice Department, the Labor Department, and the attorneys general of several states.

Paulina Gonzalez, executive director of the California Reinvestment Coalition, a consumer watchdog group, also has singled Sloan out for special criticism. There are “a lot of unanswered questions as to when and what Tim Sloan knew about these fraudulent consumer accounts,” says Gonzalez, who has called on the new CEO to help mend public trust by ending Wells Fargo’s practice of forcing former employees and fraud victims into arbitration to get their grievances resolved.

Sloan recently acknowledged that Wells Fargo had made serious mistakes regarding the phony accounts scandal, including placing too much of the blame on branch employees. “We failed to acknowledge the role leadership played and, as a result, many felt we blamed our team members,” Sloan told an audience of 1,200 Wells Fargo employees at the Knight Theater in Charlotte on October 26. "That one still hurts, and I am committed to rectifying it.” He said that the bank has ended the aggressive sales goals that led its employees to create the phony accounts, and pledged to rehire some rank-and-file employees who were fired for creating those accounts, though it’s unclear how many.

“Getting an apology when the company is backed into a corner doesn’t fix how Wells Fargo’s predatory, high-pressure sales goals hurt millions of working people and their customers,” says Erin Mahoney, a spokesperson for the Committee for Better Banks, a nationwide coalition of bank employees and community groups. “If Sloan really wants to rebuild trust within the company, he should start paying frontline workers a fair wage and working with them to collaboratively to improve working conditions and serve the best interests of employees and customers.”

The nation’s leading home mortgage lender, Wells Fargo has already agreed to pay $185 million in settlements with the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the federal Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (a federal bank regulator), and the City of Los Angeles, which sued Wells Fargo on behalf of its victimized customers. Those fines are a drop in the bucket compared with Wells Fargo’s 2015 profits of $20 billion, note consumer watchdogs spearheading their own investigations and lawsuits.

Sloan, 56, was a key member of Wells Fargo’s upper echelon throughout the period leading up to the falsified-accounts scandal. Having started his climb up Wells Fargo in 1987, Sloan headed the bank’s corporate real estate and social responsibility divisions before being named senior executive vice president and Chief Financial Officer in 2011. That’s the year Wells Fargo started firing some 5,300 low-level employees for opening the fraudulent accounts and quietly refunding millions of dollars to customers.

Last year, Sloan was promoted to Chief Operating Officer, a post that made him the executive responsible for Wells Fargo’s Community Bank and Consumer Lending divisions—ground zero in the current scandal. Among other duties, Sloan was in charge of supervising Carrie Tolstedt, who ran the Well Fargo’s community-banking division at the center of the current firestorm. Tolstedt was forced to resign last month. Under pressure from Congress and shareholders, Wells Fargo’s board withdrew Tolstedt’s severance and bonus pay as well as all of her $19 million worth of unvested stock awards. She also agreed not to exercise about $34 million in stock options. Even so, she left owning more than $43 million worth of stock that she had accumulated during her career with the bank.

Although Sloan is relatively unknown nationally, this is not the first time he has faced public scrutiny. In 2012, California bank reform activists picketed his home to protest Wells Fargo’s efforts to evict a wheelchair-bound homeowner who had missed a few mortgage payments due to a health crisis.

The owner of the residence in question, a tiny, 949-square-foot house in the gritty, working class Los Angeles suburb of South Gate, was Ana Casas Wilson, a court interpreter who had lived there since she was 12 years old. Wilson lived in the house with her husband James (a school janitor), her mother Becky (a retired factory worker who worked as a home health aide), and her teenage son Anthony.

In 2009, Wilson was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy. She also suffered from cerebral palsy and was confined to a wheelchair. Her husband quit his night job as a security guard to care for her, reducing the family’s income. During her hospitalization and chemotherapy, the family fell behind on its mortgage payments, and Wells Fargo started to foreclose on Wilson’s property.

Wilson sought to resume payments once the family’s financial situation stabilized, but Wells Fargo refused to accept the Wilsons’ checks and pursued foreclosure and eviction. A feisty disability rights activist, Wilson fought back, contacting the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), a community organizing group on the front lines of the foreclosure crisis that is known for confronting banks through negotiations, protests and civil disobedience to draw attention to their abuses of consumers and communities.

In October of 2011—a month after the Occupy Wall Street movement had started in New York City and started spreading to cities across the country—ACCE members lodged their first protest outside Sloan’s house, a $5 million, eight-bedroom Spanish-style mansion on a cul-de-sac in San Marino, one of California’s wealthiest suburbs. It’s only 10 miles from Wilson’s South Gate home, but it might as well be a world away. 

After Wilson and her supporters picketed outside Sloan’s house, the five-member San Marino City Council adopted a new law that requires protesters to remain 150 feet away from a target residence, or 75 feet from the curb adjacent to the home, whichever is further.

Fortune Global Forum/Creative Commons

Former Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf speaks at the Fortune Global Forum in San Francisco on November 2, 2015. 

“The purpose of the ordinance is not to reduce picketing, but to protect the people who are the victims of picketing,” San Marino city manager John Schaefer said at the time. “We’re a prime target. We have a lot of people who fit the profile to be the victim of this type of crime.”

The following April, after Wells Fargo continued to refuse to help the Wilsons stay in their house, Wilson and about 100 supporters from ACCE and the Service Employees International Union showed up carrying signs and chanted “Wells Fargo, shame on you!” in the street in front of Sloan’s house. Wilson even brought a check for her mortgage payment, and crossed a police cordon in her wheelchair to deliver it to Sloan. She knocked several times, but nobody answered the door.

“He's embarrassed,” Wilson told The Los Angeles Times. “That's why he won't come out. ... He knows that what they are doing is wrong.” About 90 minutes into the demonstration, police formed a line around the home, declared the assembly illegal and ordered the group to move 75 feet up the street.

Wilson refused to go and, under San Marino’s anti-protest ordinance, was arrested and taken to San Marino police headquarters.

In September 2012, as Wells Fargo was trying to evict Wilson from her home, Sloan chaired a fundraising ball for the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, an elite San Marino institution housed in the former estate of one of America’s best-known robber barons, railroad titan and real estate speculator Henry Huntington. A local newspaper published a photo of Sloan in his tuxedo, smiling for the camera. It reported that the menu by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck included “filet of beef topped with shrimp scampi, sauteed spinach, pommes puree and baby heirloom tomatoes,” and a dessert of chocolate soufflé “with spun sugar, whipped cream and berries and panna cotta with tangerine sorbet.”

The event drew 380 supporters and raised $300,00—almost twice the value of Ana Wilson’s house.

 

WILSON’S CASE IS ONLY ONE of many customer abuse controversies that must undoubtedly have been known to Sloan as a member of Wells Fargo’s executive inner circle. Long before the phony accounts scandal erupted, bank reform activists had raised the alarm about the San Francisco-based bank’s racially discriminatory lending practices and aggressive foreclosures.

Wells Fargo has been repeatedly sued by consumer watchdog groups around the country, as well as by Baltimore and other cities, for allegedly violating laws against racist mortgage lending. Activists have testified before Congress, state legislatures and City Councils demanding that they investigate the bank’s practices. Like Wilson and her supporters, they’ve occasionally picketed at the homes of the bank’s top executives, and at its offices and shareholder meetings. Wells Fargo has been so concerned about these demonstrations that it has taken to playing cat and mouse by moving its annual shareholder meeting to a new location every year in a bid to evade protestors.

In 2006, before the subprime bubble started to burst, Wells Fargo originated or co-issued $74.2 billion worth of subprime loans, making it one of the top subprime lenders in the country. By June, 2010, Wells Fargo had $17.5 billion worth of foreclosed homes on its books, making it one of the nation’s three top banks in foreclosure activity. Despite getting a $37 billion taxpayer bail out, Wells Fargo resisted kicking and screaming before reluctantly agreeing to participate in the federal government’s Home Affordable Modification Program. Even so, it helped few of its borrowers who were eligible for loan modifications designed to keep families in their homes.

Wells Fargo has also been forced to make huge settlement agreements with government agencies for engaging in a variety of predatory practices. In 2010, the Federal Reserve Board levied an $85 million fine on Wells Fargo for steering borrowers inappropriately into subprime loans and falsifying income information on loan applications. This was the largest civil consumer enforcement fine ever imposed by the Fed.

In 2012, in a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, Wells Fargo agreed to pay at least $175 million to redress blatant discrimination against African American and Hispanic borrowers. In cities across the country, brokers working with Wells Fargo steered minority borrowers into costlier subprime mortgages with higher fees when white borrowers with similar credit risk profiles received regular loans. Furthermore, while its mortgage lending to white borrowers increased, the bank’s lending dropped dramatically for African American and Hispanic borrowers. Wells Fargo has been sued many times for charging abusive mortgage default fees, submitting false and misleading court documents, processing unlawful foreclosures, mortgage appraisal and origination fraud, charging military veterans with hidden and illegal fees, robo-signing of mortgage documents, and other illegal acts.

In April, in another settlement with the Justice Department, Wells Fargo agreed to pay $1.2 billion and admitted responsibility for engaging in mortgage fraud. Between 2001 and 2008, the bank falsely claimed that many home mortgage loans were eligible for Federal Housing Authority (FHA) insurance, forcing the federal government to pay FHA insurance claims when some of those loans defaulted. 

Last month, a few weeks after the fake accounts settlement was announced, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) assessed a $20 million civil money penalty against Wells Fargo for violating the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. According to the OCC, between 2006 and 2016, the bank illegally made loans over the law’s 6 percent interest rate limit, and sought to evict service members from their homes without disclosing to courts that they were on active duty.

Laimerpramer/Wikimedia Commons

Wells Fargo's corporate headquarters in San Francisco. 

Wells Fargo has also been deeply involved in the payday lending business that preys on cash-strapped families by providing short term loans with exorbitant fees and annual interest rates (typically around 400 percent) that trap people in a cycle of debt, particularly borrowers in poor and minority neighborhoods. Wells Fargo provided financing for nine payday companies that operate one-third (32 percent) of the entire industry, whose storefronts are concentrated in African American and Latino neighborhoods.

Sloan is only one of two new leaders taking over for Stumpf as Wells Fargo enters a new phase of damage control. Stumpf had been both the bank’s chairman and its CEO. Now, those two jobs will be divvied up between Sloan as CEO and Stephen Sanger, a former CEO of General Mills, as chairman of the Wells Fargo board. The bank’s purpose with these and other moves may be to signal a clean slate.

But Sloan is the ultimate insider, not only at Wells Fargo, but as part of the nation’s corporate ruling class, which also exercises influence through its overlapping ties with business, foundation, and charitable organizations. Sloan not only serves on the Board of Overseers of the Huntington Library, he’s also a member of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business Advisory Board and a trustee of Ohio Wesleyan University, the California Institute of Technology, and (ironically, in light of Wilson’s condition) City of Hope, a well-known hospital dedicated to researching and treating cancer.

A major political donor, Sloan has made more than $235,000 in political contributions in the past five years, most of its to Republican candidates and committees.

Since the Occupy Wall Street movement emerged in 2011, Wells Fargo has donated over $10 million in campaign contributions to presidential and congressional candidates and paid $21.3 million to lobbyists, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Sloan and the bank he now runs will need all the political clout they can muster to repair the serious damage done to Wells Fargo’s reputation and stockholder confidence. California’s state treasurer, John Chiang, suspended the state’s ties with Wells Fargo, including the lucrative business of underwriting California municipal bonds, citing the bank’s “venal abuse of its customers.” Illinois and Ohio quickly followed suit. Ohio’s Republican Governor, John Kasich, has barred Wells Fargo for one year from “participating in future state debt offerings and financial services contracts initiated by state agencies” under his authority.

San Francisco city treasurer Jose Cisernos kicked Wells Fargo out of its Bank On program, which helps low-income people or those with credit problems open checking and savings accounts. Chicago has banned Wells Fargo from participating in bidding for bond underwriting and other types of business. Local Progress (a network of municipal officials), the Center for Popular Democracy (a federation of local community organizing groups), and the Committee for Better Banks (a coalition of unions and consumer groups) are pushing other cities to follow suit and stop doing business with Wells Fargo until it cleans up its act. Even the Better Business Bureau pulled its accreditation from Wells Fargo, citing the more than 4,000 complaints it has received about the bank over the last three years.

One silver lining of the scandal is that it has strengthened support for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the federal agency that helped uncover the bank’s abuses. The brainchild of Massachusetts senator and anti-Wall Street Democrat Elizabeth Warren, the CFPB was created as part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform bill over heavy banking industry opposition. Since then, banking lobbyists and their GOP allies on Capitol Hill have sought to undermine the agency by reducing its budget and authority. But the recent Well Fargo settlement may make it more difficult for bank lobbyists and Republicans in Congress to attack the CFPB, according to a recent article in American Banker. Hillary Clinton recently touted the CFPB’s “forceful response” to the Wells Fargo scandal, adding that it was “a stark reminder of why we need a strong consumer watchdog to safeguard against unfair and deceptive practices,” a sentiment echoed by Wall Street watchdog groups like Americans for Financial Reform.

Unfortunately, the CFPB could do little for Ana Wilson, so she found a different way to make her voice heard. In addition to her family’s protest on the front lawn of Sloan’s mansion in 2012, she and her supporters also set up an encampment outside Wilsons’ home. Family members said they would refuse to leave if the bank tried to arrest Wilson. The publicity generated by these protests—including TV and newspaper stories, and support from a popular morning pop radio disc jockey—brought Wells Fargo to the negotiating table.

The bank ultimately offered to sell Wilson’s house to a nonprofit group, HomeStrong USA, that promised to rent it back and give the family an option to repurchase it after the Wilsons had reestablished their credit. Tired from fighting the bank and fighting her stage four breast cancer, Wilson reluctantly agreed to the arrangement. A few weeks later, in December 2012, Wilson died at the age of 50. HomeStrong has kept up its end of the bargain. The group made major improvements to the house. Wilson’s husband James, son Anthony, and mom Becky still live there and pay an affordable rent.

Meanwhile, as he takes over as Well Fargo’s CEO, Sloan may have to sell his San Marino mansion and move to the Bay Area to be closer to the bank’s San Francisco headquarters. Now that he is in the CEO, Sloan can be certain that activists will find out where he lives and visit his new home if he doesn’t change Wells Fargo’s corporate culture and deal with its abuse of employees and consumers alike.

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