Wells exec, former employee paint contrasting pictures of bank's culture

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A top Wells Fargo executive and a former employee painted very different pictures of the culture and oversight at the San Francisco bank during a hearing by a California Assembly committee.

David Galasso, a Wells executive vice president and lead regional president for northern and central California, sought to portray the roughly two million phony accounts opened by former employees as a rare aberration that he personally had never witnessed.

"I have been on dozens of branch visits and I have not met one customer that had an unauthorized account," he said. "What I have heard from customers is that this is not my Wells Fargo. They come in and ask if we're OK."

His comments surprised the committee's chairman.

"It shocks me that you never met one client of yours that had a fraudulent account opened or seen one incident that you deemed was wrong," said Matthew Dababneh, chairman of the California Assembly Committee on Banking and Finance. "There were still thousands of employees that engaged in this behavior based on sales goals. They engaged in fraudulent activities millions of times."

Yet Galasso, who oversees 305 branches in California, said no one who reported to him was fired and he denied that the bank had a high-pressure sales culture.

"In my career, I have never terminated anybody for not meeting sales goals," Galasso said. "Some employees and ex-employees did the wrong thing. I can't say what the intent was. We should have done more earlier. We continue to try to do things that we thought would eliminate the problem."

Galasso's vision contrasted sharply with comments by Nathan Todd Davis, a former employee at Wells who spoke after the hearing was open to public comment.

"I'm going to disagree with the majority of what he said," said Davis, who claimed to have spoken directly with Galasso. "I've witnessed some really unconscionable behavior. I spoke to Human Resources and in my 10 years, I filed 50 ethics complaints. By refusing to engage in unethical practices, I've been harassed, intimidated and written up for not working overtime. These are facts."

Forced arbitration vs. class-action lawsuits
The nearly three-hour hearing in Calabasas, Calif., seemed to spark more questions than answers about how the San Francisco bank's illegal sales practices were allowed to continue for more than four years.

Last month, Wells agreed to pay $190 million in a settlement with the Los Angeles city attorney and two federal regulators. The bank said it fired 5,300 employees from 2011 to 2015 for opening roughly two million unauthorized accounts.

Several lawmakers at the hearing spoke about the need to further limit forced arbitration clauses that prohibit consumers from filing class action lawsuits.

Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., a member of the U.S. House Financial Services Committee, said at the state hearing that he plans to propose the Stumpf Arbitration Act to invalidate arbitration clauses for institutions if more than 250,000 unauthorized accounts are opened.

"You have a special case here, so I think it could be adopted at the state level," Sherman said.

California State Treasurer John Chiang said he plans to convene a task force that will focus on banks' sales cultures to determine how the illegal sales practices at Wells were allowed to flourish.

The goal is to determine what can be done to improve the culture at big financial institutions and decrease risk on the public, Tim Schaefer, a deputy treasurer of public finance at the state Treasurer's office, told American Banker, a sister brand to Bank Investment Consultant.

He said one problem is that large financial institutions have several different regulators, including the states. "We're wondering aloud whether the combination of that, plus the patchwork of state regulations, is creating cracks that these kinds of things are falling through," Schaefer said.

The task force will hold an organization meeting by December and its work is expected to be completed by mid-December 2017.

Michael Bostrom, a managing assistant city attorney in the Los Angeles City Attorney's office, said that there were 193,000 nonemployee accounts opened at Wells between 2011 and 2015 where the only domain name listed was @wellsfargo.com.

Sherman responded by saying that if the only domain name that you have is @wellsfargo.com, "You don't have to be a genius or a sleuth to say that you've got a problem."

"We need to break up the 'too big to fail' institutions," Sherman said. "'Too big to fail' is too big to exist."

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