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How the wheels came off the Wells Fargo stagecoach

The author, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, provides a first-person account of how his newspaper broke the Wells Fargo scandal — how employees opened millions of unauthorized deposit and checking accounts, often transferring funds from consumers’ existing accounts without their knowledge or consent.

My wild ride as a Los Angeles reporter on the Wells Fargo stagecoach began on a short-staffed late Wednesday afternoon in October of 2013. Pat McMahon, a veteran editor of aerospace, health care and real-estate stories in the LA Times newsroom, took a complaint call from a fired Wells Fargo employee.

We field a lot of oddball gripes at a newspaper, and Pat was no banking expert. He handed this one to me like someone on a fishing party boat who hooks a sculpin. Ever seen one? They’re delicious but covered with poisonous spines. You look for a deckhand to take them off the hook and clean them.

In this case, I was the deckhand — that is, the banking reporter. Pat said it was a weird yarn that might not amount to anything but to call the guy back, check it out and — only if merited — do a little spot story because the business section news had a late deadline that night and room to fill inside the section. Probably not worth devoting a day to it tomorrow.

The story was indeed odd: A small-business banker who said he and a bunch of other workers at a Wells Fargo branch in a suburban part of Los Angeles had been fired for creating unneeded accounts and issuing unwanted credit cards to customers. He told me that in some cases signatures were forged and customers had accounts opened in their names without their knowledge.

The banker described an immense pressure to meet sales goals. Managers required workers to stay in the branch after the close of business and call their friends and family members if they failed to meet the daily targets. And the worker said that managers had coached them how to game the system and meet what he called quotas, not sales goals.

Reporters always seek comment. I got hold of a local Wells Fargo spokesman who listened to what I’d been told and said he’d check it out. He called me back with what became Wells Fargo’s standard statement: There were indeed sales goals, employees were occasionally blinded by them and the bank took customer abuse very seriously. About 30 such workers in the LA region had indeed been fired, he said, but that was a tiny percentage of the 6,500 employees at branches in the region. Not much to write about, really.

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