Recent news of the massive fraud perpetuated by thousands of Wells Fargo employees exposes troubling trends with America’s great institutions. According to multiple reports the company opened up more than 2 million fake accounts for customers who did not request them. Ongoing since at least 2011 (though it now appears it may have begun as early as 2009), the fraud negatively impacted consumer credit ratings and resulted in fees charged to account holders.
If you or I illegally opened an account under someone else’s name, we would be criminally charged with fraud and/or identity theft and almost certainly spend time in jail. But not so with our nation’s banks. Not so with corporate weasels and their minions. No one faces criminal charges. No one goes to jail.
In fact, CEO John Stumpf refuses to call it fraud, insisting it was simply an ethical lapse. But his refusal to come clean doesn’t stop there. He also contends low-level and low-wage employees executed the fraud without involvement or awareness of senior leaders and executives. Nothing systemic, he claims with a straight face. In the aftermath 5,400 employees were fired while the executive who oversaw the department received a $125 million golden parachute to retire.
Essentially, Stumpf wants us to believe that he and other Wells Fargo executives are the brains and talent behind all the success the bank enjoys (and therefore deserving of their eight and nine figure compensation packages) but have no responsibility for anything nefarious that occurs in the bowels of the company. Like other corporate shysters, Stumpf wants it both ways. Claims credit for the good. Pleads ignorance for the bad.
It reminds me of the court scene in the movie, A Few Good Men. Jack Nicholson’s character has just chastised Tom Cruise’s character for suggesting he doesn’t have control over his military base, Guantanamo Bay. He explains his soldiers always obey orders; otherwise people die. After he allows the jury to absorb that assertion, Cruise wonders how it is that two of Nicholson’s soldiers administered a code red – a serious form of discipline – against a third soldier since Nicholson previously claimed to have ordered the practice stopped. Nicholson hems and haws and says the two men charged for the crime took matters into their own hands. No, Cruise reminds Nicholson, that’s not what happens on your base. Soldiers obey orders or people die. He goes on to expose the colonel for the lying hypocrite he is.
Which brings us back to Stumpf and Wells Fargo. How is it possible for so hideous and extensive a practice to thrive unabated and unknown for more than five years? Either Stumpf and his leadership team are utterly incompetent and therefore undeserving of their plutocratic incomes or, like Nicholson’s character, they knew what was going on and chose to ignore it until it became public – at which point they shifted to cover-up mode.
Like other corporate executives who administer cultures of fraud, greed, and unethical behavior, Stumpf believes us fools. And he knows the American system is designed to allow such behavior to continue. Sure he has to go before a Senate committee, take a few bi-partisan whacks, and suffer several minutes of public shame. But tomorrow it’s back to the basics of pretense and fabrication.
Sadly, neither Stumpf nor Wells Fargo will suffer any substantive consequences. The bank was fined a figure that amounts to peanuts relative to its considerable annual profit. Stumpf will remain at the helm and continue to rake in his hefty income. The Senate committee threw some shade but otherwise accomplished nothing.
What needs to happen (as well as what this says about modern capitalism and our government) is another story. I’ll offer thoughts on those subjects in subsequent posts in the next week or two. Suffice it to say on this issue dramatic change is required because our nation can no longer tolerate the pattern of fraud, dishonesty, and malfeasance that permeates a growing number of banks, corporations, and insurance companies. Their prioritization of profit over integrity is changing more than the culture of corporate America; it’s changing the culture of America itself. And that evolution leads down a primrose path of peril. So it must stop and it must stop now.