What is Congress learning from Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf?

John Stumpf has been called to testify in front of the Senate Banking Committee to answer questions about the 2 million fraudulent checking and credit card accounts created by Wells Fargo employees.

Gary Cameron/Reuters
Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf testifies before a Senate Banking Committee hearing on the firm's sales practices on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Sept. 20, 2016.

Wells Fargo chief executive officer John Stumpf was grilled by members of Congress on Tuesday as he appeared before the Senate Banking Committee after a scandal rocked the 164-year-old bank earlier this year.

Although the bank reached a $185-million settlement earlier this month after bank employees illegally created fake credit card and bank accounts for customers in order to boost sales totals, members of the Senate Banking Committee say that the buck shouldn't stop there.

"You should resign," Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren told Mr. Stumpf as he testified. "You should give back the money you took while this scam was going on and you should be criminally investigated by both the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission."

Wells Fargo fired 5,300 employees after the scandal became widely known, and will refund customers for fees charged as a result of the bogus accounts, but the politicians who questioned Stumpf said that those steps are not enough.

Stumpf denied that the bank's administration was behind the scheme, and maintained that the company's culture and ambitious sales quotas did not play a role.

"I do want to make it clear that there was no orchestrated effort, or scheme as some have called it, by the company," he said. "We never directed or wanted our employees, whom we refer to as team members, to provide products and services to customers they did not want or need."

When asked how the problem was so widespread, Stumpf said that it was likely that employees within the organization had talked about their actions.

Members of the Banking Committee, however, told Stumpf that it was criminal that so many lower-paid employees had been fired for their actions, when it was clear that there was some greater problem endemic in the organization.

Senator Warren told Stumpf that blaming low-salary employees was an example of "gutless leadership."

"This isn't the work of 5,300 bad apples, this is the work of sowing seeds that poisoned the orchard," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey. "You and your executives created an environment that allowed for this behavior."

The Wells Fargo CEO responded, saying that many well-paid employees had been fired as the company attempted to combat this problem, including bankers and a regional president. The former head of Wells Fargo's retail banking business, Carrie Tolstedt, chose to retire this summer after Stumpf and chief operating officer Tim Sloan told her the bank was going in a different direction.

Ms. Tolstedt received $125 million in stock compensation when she retired, although Stumpf told the senators present that she did not receive severance.

Throughout the interview, Stumpf maintained that Wells Fargo was sorry for the scandal, which saw the creation of 1.5 million fake bank accounts and 565,000 phony credit cards.

Critics of Wells Fargo's actions say that Stumpf's decision to keep receiving compensation throughout the investigation, and the organization’s slow response to the scandal, are emblematic of the problems that continue to plague Wall Street after the Great Recession.

Stumpf told the Senate Business Committee that he was made aware of the problem in 2013, although much of the account fraud appeared to have occurred between 2011 and 2016. Wells Fargo is also investigating 2009 and 2010, in order to "leave no stone unturned."

"Our economy depends on a strong and safe banking system to help keep it moving. But even after Americans spent years working hard to recover from the Great Recession, the culture of misconduct and recklessness that preceded that crisis too often persists," wrote Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in a letter to Wells Fargo customers.

"Mr. Stumpf, you make it clear that Wall Street will not change until we make it change," said Warren.

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