Opinion

Latest ‘penalty’ for high-end thieves

This, let us presume, is intended to impress and/or reassure us:

“Because of the severity of these violations, Wells Fargo is paying the largest penalty the [Consumer Financial Protection Bureau] has ever imposed.”

That oughta do it. Would-be white-collar swindlers from Seattle to Miami and from San Diego to Bangor are no doubt cringing under their desks, vowing to straighten up and fly right after the government smacked the familiar banking giant right in the wallet.

Be warned: This is what you might get if your officials and employees create a million or so bogus bank accounts and a few hundred thousand phantom credit card accounts, some of them involving very real fees surreptitiously charged to very real customers.

Criminal charges? Jail time? Perish the thought. After all, it’s not as if they boosted a car or something.

At least this realm of corporate criminality and cover-up — unlike some others involving, say, automakers, mining companies, oil rigs, sugar refiners or peanut processors — doesn’t involve actual body counts.

This comes only a month or so after Well Fargo was hit with a $4 million penalty for what the CFPB called “illegal student loan servicing practices.”

(Given that the outcomes of stories like this seldom make the point clear, “illegal” means somebody broke the law.)

The more recent fines, which the government says will total about $185 million paid to the U.S. Treasury, are levied against the bank for unauthorized deposit and credit accounts created by employees in order to collect personal incentive bonuses. According to a story in the Atlanta Business Chronicle, Wells Fargo employees also created debit card accounts, including PIN numbers, in the names of customers who had not asked for and did not know about them.

In addition to the fines, Wells Fargo is under an order from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency to create a risk management and oversight program to help prevent such incidents in the future.

Wells Fargo says it has dismissed more than 5,000 employees over the last five years for reasons related to such conduct, and last week released a statement that bank officials “regret and take responsibility for any instances where customers may have received a product that they did not request.”

Want to “take responsibility”? Start by turning over the names — yes, the names — of actual human beings who made the choice to conduct or condone this swindle, so authorities can assess individual degrees of culpability for possible criminal prosecution.

Right. Here’s the real-world ending: Carrie Tolstedt, the Wells Fargo exec who oversaw the unit responsible for these 2 million-plus phantom customer accounts — a practice, the Chronicle reports, that employees referred to as “sandbagging” — is walking away with a payoff estimated $124.6 million. (To put that in context, CFPB’s fine against Wells Fargo is for $100 million.)

The banking corporation’s CEO called Tolstedt an important bank leader and “a standard-bearer of our culture.”

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