Al Capone, Meet Wells Fargo

Richard Eskow

As the latest Wells Fargo scandal was breaking, the music world learned of the death of Prince Buster. He’s the Jamaican ska legend who made a record called “Al Capone” and sang “Enjoy yourself/it’s later than you think.” I wonder what he thought about Wall Street?

Banking giant Wells Fargo agreed to pay a $185 million fine last week, after it was discovered that its employees have opened than 2 million phony checking and credit card accounts in its customers’ names.

There’s a pattern here.

A week before Wells Fargo’s settlement was announcement, banking giant HSBC was charged with foreign-exchange trading violations. That appears to have voided a deal which allowed its bankers escaped prosecution for a persistent pattern of violating international sanctions and laundering money for the Mexican drug cartels.

Wells Fargo has a drug connection too. Wachovia, which was purchased by Wells Fargo (apparently with bailout money) in 2008, systematically laundered money for the same Mexican cartels – gangs that routinely decapitate their victims and have murdered anywhere from 65,000 to more than 100,000 people.

Al Capone seems downright tame next to that.

Chalk it up to a culture of criminality. We have often quoted William Dudley, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, who spoke in 2013 of “deep-seated cultural and ethical failures” and “the apparent lack of respect for law, regulation and the public trust” in the culture of our biggest banks.

Every major bank on Wall Street has a rap sheet that would make a Chicago gangster blush. Nevertheless, bank-servile Republicans – including Donald Trump – have been calling to disband the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, even as it brings Wells Fargo to something like justice. That’s like trying to disband the Federal Marshals right after they’ve caught a stagecoach robber.

But then, if the Wells Fargo incident has taught us anything, it’s that today’s thieves are more likely to be inside the stagecoach than outside it.

What is it about cultures of corruption that provokes strident declarations of patriotism? “This American system of ours … call it Americanism, call it capitalism, call it what you like, gives to each and every one of us a great opportunity if we only seize it with both hands and make the most of it,” said Al Capone.

“Don’t you get the idea I’m one of those goddamn radicals,” Capone also told radical journalist Claude Cockburn. “Don’t get the idea I’m knocking the American system.”

Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf apparently agrees. “This is still the best country on the planet to do business,” he says.

He’s got a point. The cheating addressed by Wells Fargo’s latest settlement took place between 2011 and 2015. That means it bilked millions of Americans after the same American people rescued it with $25 billion in bailout money in 2008.

That’s gratitude for you.

Wells Fargo has a long rap sheet. It paid a fine and returned $2.6 million in 2002 after improperly moving customers from one mutual fund to another. In 2005 it was fined $3 million for illegal sales practices, also in mutual funds.

“Some rob you with a six-gun,” sang Woody Guthrie, “some rob you with a fountain pen.”

“But,” added Guthrie, “you’ll never meet an outlaw drive a family from its home.” True to the old troubadour’s ballad, Wells Fargo has acted illegally to drive families from their homes. Its foreclosure contractors have even been accused of illegally breaking and entering into a family’s home and stealing precious heirlooms, including some that had been rescued from the threat of Nazi looters.

A former Wells Fargo employee says that he was fired for challenging the bank’s practice of misleading government authorities and foreclosing on homes without the proper documentation.

Just last month, Wells Fargo was ordered to pay $3.6 million for misleading student loan borrowers and fraudulently charging them late fees that were not owed.

The bank was fined $1.2 billion earlier this year for foreclosure fraud conducted in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis. The charges included “reckless” misconduct in generating loans and concealing information from federal authorities.

A Justice Department press release noted that, “To maximize its loan volume (and profits), Wells Fargo elected to hire temporary staff to churn out and approve an ever-increasing quantity of FHA loans …

“At the same time, Wells Fargo’s management applied pressure on its underwriters to approve more and more FHA loans. The bank also imposed short turnaround times … employed lax underwriting standards and controls and paid bonuses to underwriters and other staff based on the number of loans approved.”

In other words, Wells Fargo systematically pressured and incentivized its employees in a way that put them under enormous pressure to cheat – at a time when it already knew that cheating was taking place.

The settlement notes that the bank’s senior management was “repeatedly advised by its own quality assurance reviews of serious problems,” but “disregarded the findings and failed to implement proper and effective corrective measures, leaving HUD to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in claims for defaulted loans.”

No criminal action was taken against those unnamed members of “senior management.”

In response to last week’s fraud settlement, Wells Fargo revealed that it had fired 5,300 low-level employees for this conduct – about 1 percent of its workforce – over the past five years. That proves that it knew about this cheating for some time, and yet did nothing to change the incentives that encouraged it.

Sound familiar?

In fact, senior bank executives kept getting rich from off the cheating. The executive who ran the unit in question just retired with a $125 million payout and high praise from John Stumpf. He called her “a standard-bearer of (Wells Fargo’s) culture,” a statement which is almost certainly true.

For that matter, so is Stumpf. He once said, “I think my primary job here is to be the keeper and the advocate of (Wells Fargo’s) culture.”

Like Al Capone, Wells Fargo and its fellow Wall Street lawbreakers have long enjoyed a cozy relationship with politicians and law enforcement. That may be about to change. Senators Sherrod Brown, Jeff Merkley, Jack Reed, and Elizabeth Warren, want Stumpf to appear before the Senate as part of a broader investigation of this incident.

Bank executives need to understand that the public’s anger is deep – and justified. If Democrats like Hillary Clinton are smart, they too will grasp the depth and rationality of that anger, and will join thee senators in demanding answers from crooked bankers.

It’s possible that Wall Street’s arrogant executives will keep getting a free pass. But I wouldn’t be too sure of that if I were them. Right now they’re enjoying themselves, but they might be wise to remember the words of the late Prince Buster: It’s later than you think.

Sen. Sherrod Brown spoke with us in December 2014 about the Senate Banking Committee as a platform for fighting Wall Street corruption. A clip of that interview can be found here.



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