DOJ Criminal Prosecution of Wells Fargo: What to Expect?
Compliance and enforcement headlines have focused on the Wells Fargo scandal. And for good reason.
On September 8, 2016, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Comptroller of the Currency and the Los Angeles County Attorney announced the regulatory settlement against Wells Fargo. The enforcement action included a detailed discussion of the facts.
What was interesting in the public announcement was that the Justice Department had not opened a criminal investigation, and did not do so until two weeks after the announcement of the regulatory enforcement action. My question – why not? Where was the Department of Justice and why did it take regulatory enforcement agencies so long to “refer” or “communicate” the matter to criminal prosecutors?
DOJ is going to have to make up for lost time, and given the public attention to this matter, I would expect DOJ to move quickly and begin criminal enforcement investigations against Wells Fargo and culpable individuals.
Remember the basic facts of the regulatory action: Wells Fargo employees opened more than 1.5 million deposit accounts without client consent; transferred funds between client accounts without client consent; applied for 600,000 client credit cards without client consent; issued client debit cards without client consent. Wells Fargo charged customers $2 million in deposit fees and $400,000 in fraudulent credit card fees.
Wells Fargo employees engaged in these illegal actions to satisfy aggressive sales goals and incentives programs. Wells Fargo fired approximately 5300 employees over the last five years.
Wells Fargo paid $185 million in civil penalties and did not have to admit the charges. Wells Fargo’s conduct was nothing less than a compliance disaster. Now, we are facing a lengthy criminal investigation under which Wells Fargo will have to acknowledge guilt and accept responsibility.
The Wells Fargo fiasco, however, will be a test for DOJ’s Yates policy. Wells Fargo will be under extraordinary pressure to identify and build criminal cases against culpable individuals, reaching into the C-Suite to determine whether senior executives can be held accountable for the scandal.
The Yates memorandum will either be responsible for important prosecutions of senior Wells Fargo leaders or it will fall flat in its impact. This is a true test of the efficacy of DOJ’s new policy.
At a minimum, Wells Fargo’s executive responsible for the incentive program and the sales strategy leading to the rampant misconduct and legal violations must be held accountable.
Wells Fargo and responsible officials may be prosecuted for defrauding consumers and engaging in a widespread scheme to defraud consumers. Senior executives will be questioned as to what they knew, when they knew it and what they did to stop it, if anything.
Separate from a fraud scheme, Wells Fargo’s internal controls were clearly deficient – consumers were defrauded pursuant to an incentive program, resulting in complaints and whistleblowers who were fired for reporting concerns about the scheme. Such widespread control deficiencies raises serious concerns about Wells Fargo’s internal controls and potential individual liability for inadequate internal controls.
Whatever theories are used by criminal prosecutors, it is clear that the criminal investigation of Wells Fargo will be a watershed moment in the application and enforcement of the Yates Memorandum.