It’s becoming something of a tradition. Wells Fargo holds its annual shareholder meeting at a location kept close to the chest until the last moment — a futile attempt to keep angry protesters away. But despite the secrecy, those protesters show up year after year after year to demand accountability from the scandal-plagued bank.
The 2018 meeting, held on April 24 in Des Moines, Iowa was no different. Demonstrators gathered in the lobby of the Marriott hotel hosting the shareholders. Chants of “Wells Fargo, you’re the worst, put people and the planet first” were punctuated by notes from one protester’s plastic trombone.
The demonstrators had a set of clear demands: fire the board and CEO. Break up the bank. Stop retaliating against workers in their attempts to organize. And pay restitution to the victims of Wells Fargo’s many, many abuses.
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Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, one of the groups coordinating Tuesday’s demonstration, focused on the impact that Wells Fargo has had on communities across the country, especially for people of color. The bank has come under criticism for its ties to the gun industry, especially the National Rifle Association. Wells Fargo has also received flack for financing public prisons and the Dakota Access Pipeline, as well as its racist mortgage practices that pushed customers of color towards the costlier, riskier subprime loans that became synonymous with the financial meltdown a decade ago.
Years of controversy make it difficult to compile an exhaustive list of Wells Fargo’s faults. In the last month alone, the bank was forced to pay out $1 billion — the highest banking penalty to date under President Trump — to federal regulators. The payment was a settlement over investigations into multiple misdeeds, including a practice that forced customers to purchase pricey and unnecessary insurance policies. That payout was quickly followed by news of another government investigation, this time for a 401(k) policy that pushed retirees into more expensive accounts in a breach of the bank’s fiduciary duty.
Those recent bouts of misconduct are just the tip of a very deep iceberg. Customers were outraged in 2016 to learn that the bank had opened millions of fraudulent accounts to boost its sales numbers. The bank has also retaliated against the whistleblowers dragging their shady practices into the light.
CEO Tim Sloan has promised that Wells Fargo has become a “better bank” in the two years since the fraudulent account scandal was uncovered. In last week’s shareholder meeting, Sloan emphasized that rebuilding trust was the bank’s first priority.
But not everyone’s convinced, especially given the deep history of deceit from Wells Fargo. “These talking points feel like more of the same,” Jordan Estevao, a senior strategist with People’s Action, told the Des Moines Register. “How many more times will Wells Fargo rebuild, only to violate the public’s trust?”
Sloan, who took over the CEO role after former exec John Stumpf left in disgrace amid the 2016 fraud scandal, is being paid handsomely to put up with protests. He took home $17.5 million last year, according to a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies and Public Citizen. The typical Wells Fargo employee would need to work 291 years in order to earn that sum of money.
That kind of runaway CEO pay functions as a reward for bad bank behavior, the report points out. After all, Stumpf took home a massive sum of money after his resignation, even after forfeiting some of his stock awards due to the scandal. But it seems the bank hasn’t learned any lessons. At the meeting, the shareholders voted in favor of fatter paychecks for top Wells Fargo execs, making it all the more likely protesters will flock to next year’s meeting as well.