Wells Fargo’s CEO Defends His Main Street Legacy to Congress

Wells Phony Account Probe Brings CEO to Capitol Hill
  • Wells Fargo CEO has worked to separate bank from Wall Street
  • Sen. Brown says Wells didn’t do the right kind of management

John Stumpf tried to quit Washington’s Wall Street club.

Last year the long-time leader of Wells Fargo & Co., who sees himself as the quintessential banker to Main Street, wanted to underscore his firm’s distance from the Goldmans and Morgans of global finance, according to people familiar with his thinking. So he resigned from the Financial Services Forum, the industry’s exclusive inside-the-Beltway lobbying association made up of the largest bank CEOs.

John Stumpf
John Stumpf
Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Despite that effort, Stumpf is ending up in a place familiar to some of his Wall Street brethren -- being summoned to Capitol Hill to account for a scandal. He and the lender are embroiled in the latest embarrassing episode since the financial crisis, with authorities alleging that bank employees created more than 2 million unauthorized accounts. Highlighting the extent of the problem, more than 5,000 workers were fired over the wrongdoing.

How Stumpf, 63, navigates the storm will shape the legacy of the bank whose image he’s burnished by emphasizing its traditional lending and mortgage businesses, while downplaying its massive size. That picture isn’t likely to fool lawmakers, who are preparing to grill him in a Senate hearing Tuesday.

“A bank that purports to be as conservative as Wells Fargo says they are, clearly didn’t do the right kind of management,” said Sherrod Brown, the top Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee, which is holding the hearing. “No wonder people hate big banks, no wonder people are so suspicious of Wall Street.”

Jennifer Dunn, a spokeswoman for Wells Fargo, said the bank left the Financial Services Forum because other trade associations better represented its focus on doing business in the U.S.

Small-Town Lobbying

Under Stumpf and predecessor Dick Kovacevich, San Francisco-based Wells Fargo focused on consumer businesses such as mortgage lending, eventually becoming the country’s third-largest bank by assets. Stumpf once told investors that he couldn’t "care less" about how his firm ranked among Wall Street’s investment banks.

While growing, Wells Fargo maintained a distinctly small-town feel in its Washington lobbying efforts. The lender uses just three lobbying firms, Senate records show: a small company known as JDM Public Strategies; the Podesta Group, a larger and more well-known lobby shop; and Edward Yingling, a former president of the American Bankers Association now at the Covington & Burling law firm. Other Wall Street banks have a deeper roster of outside lobbyists.

Wells Fargo’s keep-your-head-down approach is now impairing its crisis management efforts. The bank was blindsided by the harsh congressional reaction to the bogus accounts, and has been scrambling over the past few days to meet with staffers to explain the $185 million settlement it made with the Los Angeles city attorney and federal regulators, according to people who have spoken with bank employees.

In the meetings, the lender’s president and potential CEO successor, Tim Sloan, has expressed regret over the bank’s conduct and described in detail how the firm conducted its own investigation, people with knowledge of the discussions said.

His efforts at damage control have so far fallen short. Panel members and staff complained that Sloan and other bank representatives dodged questions about which executives were responsible and refused to say whether any high-level managers would be fired or whether pay would be clawed back. The bank appeared unprepared in the days immediately after government settlements were announced, unable to answer basic questions about the misconduct, according to the people.

“I have many additional questions for Wells Fargo," said Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, after he met with Sloan. “I have deep concerns about Wells Fargo’s response to this prolonged fraud."

Wells Fargo’s Dunn said the bank has “a relationship-based approach with Congress,” and "anticipated the need to provide additional information to our customers, the public and policy makers.”

‘Badly Broken’

Senators are expected to focus on Carrie Tolstedt, 56, who oversaw the suspect sales practices as head of Wells Fargo’s community-banking arm. The bank announced her retirement two months before the government settlement and she stands to receive millions of dollars in unvested stock. Critics including Senator Elizabeth Warren have already questioned whether some of that compensation should be returned.

Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, signaled during a Bloomberg TV interview last week that she’ll be an aggressive inquisitor at the hearing on Tuesday.

“I’ve got a lot of questions for that man,” Warren said, referring to Stumpf. “Something is badly broken at that bank.”

On the House side, Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling said Friday his panel is planning an investigation, and is likely to interview Tolstedt and other senior officers. Hensarling will also hold a hearing later this month.

“If the facts are substantiated and they very well may be, Wells Fargo deserves all the punishment they are getting,” said Hensarling, a Texas Republican.

Consumer Harm

The executives and lobbyists who have talked to colleagues at Wells Fargo in recent days said the firm is still struggling to figure out what public posture to take.

Wells Fargo is concerned that launching a stout defense of its actions could subject it to criticism that it’s minimizing the settlement and not looking appropriately contrite, the people said. The bank didn’t admit or deny regulators’ allegations of wrongdoing when it resolved the matter earlier this month.

In Wells Fargo’s favor, the people said, is the relatively small amount of consumer damage. The bank agreed to repay about $2.6 million in fees it found were improperly charged to customers, but that’s an average refund of about $25 to those who were allegedly harmed.

Wells Fargo has also said that the seemingly large number of people fired -- 5,300 -- happened over five years and should be put in context of its workforce of roughly 268,000.

But in a national election year, where candidates are eager to take shots at large banks, none of that may have much impact.

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