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As Md. examines accounts, Wells Fargo Md. chief vows to overcome scandal

Andy Bertamini, head of Wells Fargo’s Md. operations (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Andy Bertamini, head of Wells Fargo’s Md. operations (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Amid scrutiny from Congress and from regulators here and across the country, the head of Wells Fargo’s Maryland operations says he wants to put his focus back on the customer and move past revelations of the bank’s toxic work environment and its unethical sales practices.

“This has been a very difficult, challenging thing,” said Andrew Bertamini in an exclusive interview with The Daily Record on Friday. “We have and continue to take it quite seriously.”

Bertamini said he is not aware of any investigations of Wells Fargo by Maryland authorities, including the attorney general’s office.

But in an interview with The Daily Record, Attorney General Brian E. Frosh said he has asked his agency’s consumer protection office to look into the bank’s practices in Maryland. Frosh said he does not know of any findings from that review.

“If they (Wells Fargo) created fictitious accounts that cost Maryland consumers, that would be a violation of the Consumer Protection Act,” said Frosh. “I can’t talk about pending investigations but that’s something … it would be reasonable to expect that the National Association of Attorneys General would send to a multi-state investigation because Wells Fargo operated across the country and every state has the same kind of policies followed by Wells Fargo.”

A review of Wells Fargo credit card and deposit accounts found that 15,391 accounts in Maryland may have been unauthorized. That figure includes a roughly even split between credit cards and deposit accounts. Of those flagged accounts in Maryland, 524 incurred fees that were reimbursed.

Wells Fargo has said the number of potentially unauthorized accounts is a high estimate, as many of the flagged accounts, especially on the credit side, were singled out for having cards that were ordered but not activated.

“I don’t want to try to minimize it,” said Bertamini. “One unauthorized account is one too many.”

There are about 1.36 million deposit account and credit card holders in Maryland.

Other probes

California Attorney General Kamala Harris announced earlier this month that her office is investigating the San Francisco-based bank. Other government officials, including U.S. attorneys in New York and Charlotte, North Carolina have also opened investigations.

Even though the Wells Fargo’s presence in Maryland is much smaller compared to other parts of the country, it is the fifth-largest bank in Maryland, with a 7.5 percent market share and $10.5 billion in deposits.

Bertamini said he first heard about the unethical sales practices three years ago after the Los Angeles Times published an article pointing to court records, internal bank documents and interviews with numerous Wells Fargo employees who talked about the high-pressure environment that forced people to open unauthorized accounts to meet sales quotas.

“That’s when we said we need to take a look at our practices across the organization,” said Bertamini.

Wells Fargo hired PricewaterhouseCoopers to examine 93.5 million credit card and deposit accounts across the country, of which 2 million were flagged for potentially being unauthorized. The firm determined that 115,000 of those accounts may have incurred fees.

Even though more than 15,000 accounts in Maryland were affected by these practices, Bertamini said that he did not teach or condone any overly aggressive sales practices that would have been behind the creation of those accounts.

“Our coaching of sales practices is do the right thing for the clients. That’s what I’ve coached, that’s what I’ve seen coached,” Bertamini said. “I can’t comment on when someone does something wrong. Any comments I have gotten validate that.”

Bertamini would not comment on whether any Wells Fargo managers or employees have been fired in Maryland over the scandal, saying that the bank does not disclose any personnel terminations. The bank has more than 4,000 employees in Maryland.

Incentives jettisoned

As of Oct. 1, the bank eliminated product sales goals in its retail banking sector, an incentive that is common in the banking sector. That change opens an opportunity for the bank to create an incentive program that’s based on customer satisfaction, not sales, said Bertamini.

“As we navigate this, it will become the new normal and we will impact the way the industry does business,” he said.

The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau has said the problems at Wells Fargo are symptomatic of larger problems with sales practices in the banking industry. However, Bertamini shied away from that question.

“I couldn’t speculate on that,” he said. “This is all I know.”

From putting out full-page ads in national newspapers to reaching out to bank customers, Wells Fargo has been trying to deliver a message that it’s going to make things right, a message that Bertamini also stressed for the Maryland and Virginia markets he oversees.

“We’ll still take care of our clients. That’s what we’ve always done.”

 


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