On Tuesday, the Senate Banking Committee will hold hearings on the Wells Fargo fraud scandal, giving Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., an opportunity to rip into the bank. But Americans deserve to see prosecutions, and lots of themnot political grandstanding.
Since 2011, thousands of Wells Fargo employees pursued compensation incentives by secretly opening millions of bank and credit card accounts using customer names and signatures without authorization. Debit cards and PINs were activated without consent. In some cases, employees conjured phony email addresses to enroll their victims in online-banking services. Some clients suffered major hits to their credit scores and may spend years repairing the damage.
The fraud was so common that employees had a name for it: sandbagging. Wells Fargo fired 5,300 employees involved in the scandal and refunded $2.6 million in customer fees associated with the unauthorized accounts. These are necessary first steps, but far from sufficient. What occurred was large-scale criminal fraud, not simply aggressive sales tactics.
Unfortunately, government agencies have responded by demanding their piece of the action, not by prosecuting wrongdoers.
On Sept. 8, Wells Fargo was fined $100 million by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, $35 million by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and $50 million by the city and county of Los Angeles. This $185 million amounts to three days of profit for the mega-bank.
But unless guilty people are held personally accountable for their criminal behavior, the wheels of justice will have yet to turn. Wells Fargo employees committed fraud, and it is law enforcements responsibility to bring them to justice.
Thousands broke the law because crooked businesspeople have little to fear. White-collar criminal convictions by the U.S. Department of Justice fell to a 20-year low in 2015. Past criminal activity by banksStandard Chartered, HSBC, Barclays and Credit Suisseresulted in fines, but not one individual spent a day in jail for those crimes. Fines were paid, shareholders took their hit, the government took its cut, but the guilty spent not one day in jail. The government has failed to protect Americans from fraudsters, and this pattern created a conducive environment for abuses at Wells Fargo.
Markets reacted quickly after the news broke, hammering the banks share price and pushing its market value below that of rival JPMorgan Chase. Now the government must do its job by punishing those who defrauded customers and investors, instead of simply taking a cut of the profits.
Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf said he is ready to share Wells Fargos story at the Senate hearing. Perhaps its time for him to share a prison cell, too.
Americans deserve to see thorough investigations, indictments, convictions and real jail time for business criminals, not merely fines and political posturing. Wall Street fraud should be taken as seriously as Main Street theft. Justice demands that law enforcement step up and do its job to protect the innocent.