Reports On Wells Fargo Whistleblowers Spark Inquiry In Congress
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2016 saw one of the biggest banking scandals in U.S. history. Regulators say Wells Fargo opened as many as 2 million credit card and checking accounts in customers' names without their approval. On top of that, former Wells Fargo workers tell NPR that the bank destroyed their careers after they tried to report wrongdoing. Capitol Hill is investigating. We should say, NPR receives financial support from Wells Fargo. NPR's Chris Arnold has our story.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: It hasn't been the happiest holiday season for a former Wells Fargo worker named David. After the bank fired him from his job at a branch in Florida last year, David's been making half of what he used to. He can't afford his rent anymore. So instead of wrapping up presents, David's been packing up his belongings.
DAVID: It is a strain. I'm packing boxes, putting stuff in storage. And I'm moving a one-bedroom apartment into a storage unit and then moving into one room in a person's house.
ARNOLD: Which is not where David wants to be at 54 years old and heading into the new year.
DAVID: On New Year's Eve, I will be moving.
ARNOLD: Over the past few months, NPR has talked to former Wells Fargo workers in Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Los Angeles and San Francisco. They all say that managers at the bank retaliated against them for calling the company's ethics line and pushing back against intense sales pressure to sign customers up for multiple credit cards and checking accounts.
DAVID: There's no need to have all those accounts, especially when they're charging you fees.
ARNOLD: So David says he refused to do it. It wasn't fair to customers. After a heated argument with one manager about all this, David says he'd had enough.
DAVID: I contacted the ethics hotline. I contacted the HR department.
ARNOLD: It was after that that David was fired. And Wells Fargo wrote negative comments on what's called his U5 document. It's like a report card for bankers and brokers. David thinks the real reason he was fired - retribution because he resisted the sales pressure and reported coworkers who broke the rules. But David says with these comments on his U5 report card...
DAVID: I cannot get a job working at a bank anymore. I had to declare bankruptcy because, you know, currently I'm working for minimum wage. And my career is over thanks to Wells Fargo.
ARNOLD: David only wants to use his first name for fear of damaging his job prospects even more. NPR has reported on other workers who describe much the same thing. And these stories have lawmakers in Washington now demanding answers from Wells Fargo. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren...
ELIZABETH WARREN: We heard the reports on NPR about former Wells employees, and that's what got us interested. And so we started looking at the U5 and digging and finding more and more evidence of a big problem at Wells.
ARNOLD: Warren and two other senators sent a letter asking for answers from Wells Fargo about whether the bank retaliated against whistleblowers. And Warren is asking more broadly whether this U5 report card system is fair to workers.
The system is run by an industry group called FINRA. That's the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. On the one hand, if a worker takes advantage of customers, the system is effective at labeling the worker as a bad apple. But if a worker gets unfairly maligned by the bank or a manager, workers say it's almost impossible to get their records corrected. So their careers can be unfairly destroyed. Elizabeth Warren...
WARREN: The Wells Fargo scandal exposes how vulnerable bank employees are under the current system. I hope that we're going to see some changes come out of this.
ARNOLD: FINRA itself has launched an inquiry into Wells Fargo workers' U5s. And Warren and a larger group of lawmakers on the Senate Banking Committee just a few days before Christmas expressed frustration in a letter over the banks, quote, "slow and incomplete responses to a broader set of questions." And they're now demanding more answers.
WARREN: This isn't over yet.
ARNOLD: Wells Fargo has told NPR in a statement that it's, quote, "disturbing to hear claims of retaliation against team members who contacted the ethics line." The bank says it's investigating. The bank also says it now has a team to assist former employees who'd like to be rehired. Employees can email email@example.com.
After David relocates to his new rented room in January, he says he's very interested in getting his job back, and he says he desperately wants to get these damaging remarks off his record. Chris Arnold, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALEX BLEEKER AND THE FREAKS SONG, "SPRING JAM")
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