John Stumpf, the chairman and chief executive of Wells Fargo, won a dubious achievement award from one of his interrogators during Tuesday’s scorching hearings on Capitol Hill. The bank’s yearslong practice of opening bogus accounts for customers and charging fees to do so, said Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana, had united the Senate Banking Committee on a major topic for the first time in a decade. “And not in a good way,” headded.
But this was not the first time problematic and pervasive activities at Wells Fargo succeeded in uniting a disparate group. After observing years of abusive mortgage loan servicing practices at the bank, an increasing number of judges hearing foreclosure cases after the financial crisis grew to understand that banks could not always be trusted in their pleadings.
This was a major shift: For decades, the nation’s courts had been largely pro-bank when hearing foreclosure cases, accepting what big financial institutions produced in documentation and amounts owed by borrowers.
“Wells didn’t intentionally educate judges. They didn’t raise their hand and say, ‘Judge, we’re sorry,’” said O. Max Gardner III, a prominent foreclosure defense lawyer who teaches consumer counsel how to represent troubled borrowers. “It was people really digging in and having the resources and the time to ask the right questions about what they were doing with the money.” Those practices included levying improper fees and incorrectly foreclosing on homes.
Tom Goyda, a Wells Fargo spokesman, said: “The housing downturn was a challenging time for our nation, and Wells Fargo has acknowledged that we made mistakes in the handling of mortgage foreclosures along the way. Lenders, investors, along with policy makers and regulators — all sides — learned foreclosure processes had to be addressed, and Wells Fargo made significant improvements to the way we work with customers when they fall behind in their payments and during the foreclosure process.”
During the financial crisis, Wells Fargo was at a remove from Wall Street and was not a big player in creating toxic and complex mortgage securities that were engineered to fail. But the bank’s ability to emerge from the crisis with a relatively good reputation is something of a mystery to anyone who paid attention to its aggressive foreclosure activities.