The Securities and Exchange Commission calls itself the whistle-blower’s advocate. But one participant in the agency’s lauded whistle-blower program isn’t so sure.
He is Michael J. Lutz, an accounting specialist who raised his hand in early 2013 when he was at Radian Group, the giant mortgage insurer. At the time, Radian was still weathering the subprime crisis; it had insured loads of soured mortgages, and Mr. Lutz believed the company was lowballing the amount it might have to pay in claims on the loans.
Mr. Lutz, 31, worked at Radian’s headquarters in Philadelphia verifying that the company’s internal accounting controls were effective. This task is also known as Sarbanes-Oxley testing, named for the Enron-era legislation that bolstered the penalties for accounting fraud.
Radian was required to set aside reserves against potential losses on bad loans, and Mr. Lutz reckoned that his employer was materially understating those amounts. The company was looking to raise capital through a stock offering, and the lower the reserves, the better the company’s earnings would appear.
When Mr. Lutz voiced his concerns to his superiors, he said he was told to stand down.
“I felt like I was on an island,” Mr. Lutz told me in a phone interview. “This big-insurance-company-versus-this-little-guy is a very lonely and difficult situation to be in. But I felt I had no other choice. I was doing my job and doing what was right.”
After an investigation of Mr. Lutz’s allegations, Radian concluded that he was wrong: Its reserves had been appropriate.
There were multiple red flags and missed signals at the OCC for years, the bank’s main regulator, the report said.
Most tellingly, bank examiners assigned to review Wells Fargo were aware of approximately 700 whistle-blower complaints related to “gaming of incentive plans” when they met with senior managers of the San Francisco-based bank in January 2010, the report said.
Carrie Tolstedt, who at the time headed the community banking division that was ground zero for the scandal was dismissive of the complaints, attributing them to a corporate culture that encouraged valid claims “which are then investigated and appropriately addressed,” the report said. Tolstedt also said the bank’s sales incentive programs were capped at 10% to 20% of bank workers’ total compensation “to keep motivation in check.” Tolstedt no longer works for the bank and has had to give back millions in compensation in connection with her role in the scandal.
According to the report, there was “no evidence that examiners required the bank to provide an analysis of the risks and controls, or investigated these issues further to identify the root cause and the appropriate supervisory actions needed.”
Additionally, Wells Fargo’s board of directors received regular reports dating back to 2005 indicating that the highest volume of internal ethics complaints at the bank involved “sales integrity violations.” The OCC’s Wells Fargo team received the same reports as early as 2010. However, the report said records don’t “indicate examiners investigated the root cause.”
The federal government has ordered Wells Fargo to reinstate a former bank manager who lost his job after reporting suspected fraudulent behavior at the bank.
The Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced on Monday that the bank must rehire the employee, as well as pay back wages, compensatory damages and attorneys’ fees totaling $5.4 million.
OSHA concluded that the manager was “abruptly” forced to leave a Los Angeles branch of the bank in 2010, after he told superiors he suspected two of his subordinates of bank, mail and wire fraud. The manager also called the bank’s ethics hot line. OSHA determined his whistleblowing was “at least a contributing factor in his termination.” The manager was not named.
With a ruling Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court revived a long-running whistleblower lawsuit that accused Wachovia’s investment bank of violating accounting rules and skirting internal controls to pursue short-term profits.
The Supreme Court vacated a judgment in August 2016 by the U.S. Appeals Court for the Second Circuit that had affirmed a lower court’s decision to dismiss the case filed by two whistleblowers, including one who had worked in Charlotte.
The high court ordered the appeals court to give the case further consideration in light of a June 2016 Supreme Court ruling that interpreted an aspect of the federal whistleblower law called the U.S. False Claims Act.
“It has obviously breathed new life into our case, which is very important for everyone involved,” said Joel Androphy, a Houston-based attorney representing the plaintiffs. “This has been a very long road.”
One of the country’s foremost nonprofit legal advocacy groups for whistleblowers has taken up the cause of former JPMorgan Chase broker Johnny Burris who was fired after refusing to put his elderly clients into the bank’s own high-priced products.
The Government Accountability Project, which has represented Edward Snowden and other prominent tipsters, filed an appeal of a Department of Labor decision to uphold the bank’s termination of Burris in 2013. That same decision, issued last month, also found that the bank did retaliate against Burris, who’s now an RIA based in Surprise, Arizona.
JPMorgan drew the largest SEC fine of 2015, $307 million, for inappropriately pushing its own products, three years after Burris provided the commission with more than a thousand pages of documents and secret recordings supporting his allegations. Burris also accuses several of his managers of lying under oath or omitting material facts during a FINRA arbitration case.
JPMorgan Chase inappropriately retaliated against a former employee who raised questions about the bank’s sales tactics and investment products, the Labor Department found.
The bank was ordered to pay back wages and damages to Johnny Burris, a former broker at one of its Arizona branches. A letter released on Tuesday by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a division of the department, said that JPMorgan had violated provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley law designed to protect whistle-blowers.
A spokeswoman for JPMorgan, Patricia Wexler, said the bank planned to appeal the findings. Ms. Wexler noted that the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, the industry’s self-funded regulator, had previously ruled against Mr. Burris when he told an arbitration panel that he was fired as retaliation.
Former workers at Wells Fargo who resisted pressure to push banking products on customers who didn’t want them say the bank retaliated against them by docking their permanent record, sabotaging future job prospects.
OBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
2016 saw one of the biggest banking scandals in U.S. history. Regulators say Wells Fargo opened as many as 2 million credit card and checking accounts in customers’ names without their approval. On top of that, former Wells Fargo workers tell NPR that the bank destroyed their careers after they tried to report wrongdoing. Capitol Hill is investigating. We should say, NPR receives financial support from Wells Fargo. NPR’s Chris Arnold has our story.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: It hasn’t been the happiest holiday season for a former Wells Fargo worker named David. After the bank fired him from his job at a branch in Florida last year, David’s been making half of what he used to. He can’t afford his rent anymore. So instead of wrapping up presents, David’s been packing up his belongings.
DAVID: It is a strain. I’m packing boxes, putting stuff in storage. And I’m moving a one-bedroom apartment into a storage unit and then moving into one room in a person’s house.
ARNOLD: Which is not where David wants to be at 54 years old and heading into the new year.
DAVID: On New Year’s Eve, I will be moving.
ARNOLD: Over the past few months, NPR has talked to former Wells Fargo workers in Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Los Angeles and San Francisco. They all say that managers at the bank retaliated against them for calling the company’s ethics line and pushing back against intense sales pressure to sign customers up for multiple credit cards and checking accounts.
DAVID: There’s no need to have all those accounts, especially when they’re charging you fees.