WASHINGTON — Wells Fargo Chief Executive John Stumpf was relentlessly questioned by lawmakers for nearly three hours Tuesday in what was arguably the worst hearing for a bank executive since the financial crisis.
Senators from both political parties took turns hammering Stumpf over revelations that more than 5,300 employees opened 2 million phony accounts, pressing him on why an investigation wasn't disclosed by the bank in required legal findings and when exactly he became aware of the misconduct.
But Stumpf's worst moment came when Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., called on Stumpf to resign, accusing him of personally profiting through Wells Fargo's rising stock price even while the bank's employees committed fraud.
"You should resign, you should give back the money you took while this scam went on, and you should be investigated by the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission," Warren told Stumpf at the hearing.
Through it all, Stumpf appeared calm, but he often seemed unprepared for lawmakers' questions. He repeatedly deferred specific inquiries, saying, "I don't know the numbers, I have to talk to our team."
Pressed about when he became aware of the accusations of fraud, Stumpf said 2013, but couldn't specify exactly when. It was unclear if Stumpf was aware of the problem before it was first reported by the Los Angeles Times.
Stumpf also gave conflicting answers on whether Wells Fargo should have disclosed the regulatory investigation into the matter through SEC filings. At first Stumpf said he was unsure whether it had been disclosed. But later he claimed that the bank had chosen not to disclose it because "it was not a material event."
That claim drew derision from Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.
"I get those dollar amounts may not qualify as material to Wells Fargo," Toomey said, saying it was material to the bank's reputation.
"When thousands of people conduct the same kind of fraudulent activity, it's a stretch to believe that every one of them independently conjured up this idea to commit this fraud," he said. "Doesn't it defy common sense to think there wasn't some orchestration of this?"
Stumpf also gave a confusing answer about whether Carrie Tolstedt, the bank's former head of its banking unit who retired in July, was held responsible for the actions of employees in her division.
Stumpf maintained that Tolstedt "chose to retire" after 27 years, but at the same time claimed that Chief Operating Officer Tim Sloan had told her that the bank "wanted to go in a different direction."
That comment was the first time Wells Fargo has suggested Tolstedt was pushed out, even while Stumpf continued to say that she left voluntarily.
He also repeatedly declined to say whether Wells would seek to claw back millions of dollars in bonus pay. Although Stumpf is also chairman of Wells' board of directors, he sought to distance himself from the decisions the board will have to make on clawbacks.
"The Wells Fargo board is actively engaged in this issue. The board has the tools to hold senior management accountable, including me and Carrie Tolstedt," Stumpf said. "I will respect and accept the decision of the board."
Warren asked why Stumpf did not fire Tolstedt before she retired, noting that Stumpf was aware of the pending settlement by the time she made her decision.
"If you knew there was a problem, did you consider firing her?" Warren asked.
Stumpf said that he did not, and that he was looking at her "full body of work."
Warren also noted that since Tolstedt is technically an employee until the end of the year, she is eligible for bonus pay for the year. When Stumpf was asked if he would consider cutting that bonus pay, he wouldn't say.
"There's a board governance process and we want that to work properly," he said.
He repeatedly noted that he was not on the human resources and compensation committee, which operates independently.
"I don't want in any way to prejudice their activity, and I'm going to accept and respect any decision that they make," he said.
Lawmakers all but demanded that Wells claw back pay.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said that Wells would be "committing malpractice from the standpoint of just public relations" if it does not claw back pay from Stumpf and other executives.
"So at a minimum, I'm sure that is going to take place," Corker said. "I would be surprised if it doesn't."
Stumpf also appeared unready for questions about how customers' credit scores would be affected by the scandal. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said the impact on customers went beyond fees and fines because account openings could harm credit scores.
"What about the folks that may have got a house through Chase and paid a higher interest rate because of that?" Tester asked. "The truth is there are real-world implications here on young families and old families that are going to be put in a poverty situation because of that."
Stumpf did not specify how the bank would address the situation, saying only that "we have more work to do."
At the same time, he continued to point a finger at individual employees who were fired for this behavior, and said they represented only 1% of Wells' workforce.
But lawmakers mocked that figure, noting it was still more than 5,000 employees.
"Every time you say that, you give ammunition to the folks that want to break up the big banks," Tester said. "This is a major screw-up that went on for far, far too long. I think you know that. But, man, there's going to be a lot of work that has to be done to rectify the situation."
Lawmakers said the blame lay in Wells' aggressive cross-selling tactics. Warren argued that employees were forced to work holidays and weekends to sell up to eight products to every customer, which Stumpf referred to as the "Great Eight."
In response to Warren, Stumpf defended the practice. "Cross-selling is shorthand for deepening relationships," he said.
Warren also submitted transcripts of Wells' earnings calls from 2012 to 2014 in which Stumpf personally cited the success at cross-selling accounts as one of the reasons investors should buy stock in the company.
"While this scam was going on, you personally held an average of 6.5 million shares, and the share price went up by $30, which translates into more than $200 million in gains," Warren said.
"This isn't right. The only way that Wall Street will change is when executives face jail time when they preside over massive fraud. Until then it will be business as usual, and at giant banks like Wells Fargo, it seems to me, cheating as many customers and employees as they can."