Senators Question Wells Fargo on Firing Reports

WASHINGTON (Los Angeles Times/TNS) -

Three Democratic senators are questioning Wells Fargo & Co. about regulatory filings for employees fired for creating unauthorized accounts, saying the forms gave the bank “ample information about the scope of fraudulent sales practices.”

In addition, the senators raised concerns about the accuracy of the filings with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority and suggested the bank might have “filed inaccurate or incomplete” information to retaliate against employees who blew the whistle regarding the creation of as many as 2 million unauthorized accounts.

“If Wells Fargo submitted false or incomplete information about the fired employees in its mandatory disclosures to FINRA, the bank may have violated FINRA rules and misled regulators about the scope of the fraud,” Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Ron Wyden of Oregon wrote to Wells Fargo Chief Executive Timothy Sloan on Thursday.

The bank agreed in September to pay $185 million to settle investigations by Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency into an aggressive sales culture that led employees to open as many as 2 million card accounts in customers’ names without their consent.

The practices were first uncovered by a Los Angeles Times investigation in 2013.

Wells Fargo has said it fired about 5,300 employees since 2011 for creating unauthorized accounts. About 600 of the fired retail banking employees apparently also were licensed to sell investment products or refer customers to Wells Fargo’s brokerage business.

Those workers were required to be registered with FINRA, the securities industry’s self-regulatory arm, according to data FINRA provided to the senators.

Of those licensed employees, 207 “were specifically terminated for issues that fall within the scope” of the practices outlined in the settlement, the senators said.

Within 30 days of the firing of those employees, Wells Fargo was required to file a Uniform Termination Notice for Securities Industry Registration, known as a U5 form, with FINRA. The form must include details on the reasons for the firing.

The U5 forms that were filed for the 207 employees “confirm that Wells Fargo had ample information about the scope of fraudulent sales practices long before the CFPB settlement, and they raise additional questions about Wells Fargo’s response to this illegal activity,” the senators wrote.

It’s unclear if forms were filed for the other 400 FINRA-registered employees or if they cited different reasons for termination, the senators said. A FINRA review is in its early stages, they said.

Former Wells Fargo Chief Executive John Stumpf, who resigned last month in the wake of the scandal, testified at a Senate hearing in September that he realized the problem of unauthorized accounts was “becoming a bigger issue” at the bank in the summer or fall of 2013.

Wells Fargo spokeswoman Jennifer Dunn said the bank “has been working for years to stop wrongful sales practices” and those efforts predated the regulatory settlements.

“However, we acknowledge we could have acted sooner and more aggressively,” she said.

The senators asked Sloan whether the bank routinely reviews or analyzes the U5 forms it files and asked for copies of the forms for the fired employees. The forms are required to provide specific reasons for firings and are not supposed to vaguely say that a person violated company policy, the senators said.

They also asked Sloan how many of the fired FINRA-registered employees had contacted managers, the bank’s ethics hotline or otherwise reported “potential misconduct.”

The senators cited a National Public Radio report last month that some Wells Fargo employees who reported concerns about the bank’s sales practices were fired and their U5 forms contained false or vague information that prevented them from getting other jobs in the industry.

FINRA allows the public to access information about registered brokers, including “employment history, certifications, and licenses — as well as regulatory actions, violations or complaints,” according to its BrokerCheck website.

“These accounts raise questions about the accuracy of Wells Fargo’s form U5s for employees who were fired for engaging in illegal activity and for employees who appear to have been fired for blowing the whistle on illegal activity at Wells Fargo,” the senators wrote.

Dunn said Wells Fargo has “zero tolerance for retaliation” against employees.

“We are investigating claims regarding these matters and doing an end-to-end review of our EthicsLine process” she said.

The senators said Wells Fargo has had a history of compliance problems related to U5 forms. FINRA fined the bank’s Wells Fargo Advisors subsidiary $1 million in part because of delays in reporting and updating the forms.