s
s
Sections
Sections
Subscribe
You've read 4 of 12 free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to Petaluma360.com, the Argus-Courier e-edition and our mobile app starting at just 99 cents per month!
Already a subscriber?
You've read 8 of 12 free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to Petaluma360.com, the Argus-Courier e-edition and our mobile app starting at just 99 cents per month!
Already a subscriber?
We hope you've enjoyed reading your 12 free articles this month.
Continue reading with unlimited access to Petaluma360.com, the Argus-Courier e-edition and our mobile app starting at just 99 cents per month!
Already a subscriber?
We've got a special deal for readers like you!
Get unlimited access to Petaluma360.com, the Argus-Courier e-edition and our mobile app starting at just 99 cents per month, and support community journalism!
Already a subscriber?
Thanks for your interest in award-winning community journalism! To get more of it, why not subscribe?
Get unlimited access to Petaluma360.com, the Argus-Courier e-edition and our mobile app starting at just 99 cents per month, and support community journalism!
Already a subscriber?
Want to keep reading? Take the next step by subscribing today!
Starting at just 99 cents per month, you can keep reading Petaluma360.com, the Argus-Courier e-edition and our mobile app, and support local journalism!
Already a subscriber?

Lawsuit: Petaluma Wells Fargo employees ‘corralled’ day laborers


When business was slow at its branch in Petaluma, a former Wells Fargo employee said his manager had an unusual solution to meet the bank’s aggressive sales targets.

Latino employees were instructed to round up undocumented immigrants who congregated outside a nearby 7-Eleven store, drive them back to the bank and sign them up for checking and savings accounts, according to a sworn statement by Denny Russo, a former teller at the Wells Fargo branch in Petaluma.

“My colleagues constantly went to and from this location to try to meet their sales goals,” Russo said.

The allegations are contained in a lawsuit filed by Wells Fargo shareholders against the San Francisco bank, which has been rocked by revelations that employees at branches across the United States signed up customers for millions of accounts they never asked for.

The scandal led to the departure of CEO John Stumpf last fall, the firing of thousands of employees and $185 million in fines from regulators. It has also prompted several class-action lawsuits seeking to return millions in executive bonuses.

Bank spokesman Ruben Pulido said the practices described at the Petaluma branch are “offensive, inconsistent with our policies, values, and the relationships we work hard to build with everyone in our community.”

“Make no mistake, those activities have always been against our policies and values,” Pulido said in a statement. “We are confident that our practices and controls to guard against such abuses are stronger than ever. Simply put, activities like those described in the allegations will not be tolerated.”

Shareholder attorneys accuse the bank’s governing board of turning a blind eye to unethical dealings they say raise questions about how the entire industry is run.

“Frankly, this is a shocking case,” said San Francisco attorney and former supervisor Louise Renne, who represents several shareholders. “If this is the way other banks and Wall Street operate, we are all in big trouble.”

Wells Fargo last week sought to have the case dismissed in San Francisco County Superior Court. A judge took the matter under submission.

Shareholders allege executives and board members failed to properly oversee the bank’s practices, including the drastic measures workers felt forced to take to meet onerous goals set by regional managers.

The lawsuits include statements by former employees in California, Utah, Wisconsin and Arizona who detail practices they say they were pushed to use to bring in new customers and open accounts — both legitimate and unauthorized.

Kelsey Hess, who worked at a Wells Fargo branch in a suburb of Salt Lake City, said in her statement that employees were encouraged to go to nearby construction sites, seek out workers there who were in the country illegally, and open unauthorized accounts in their names.

Ricky Hansen Jr., a former Wells Fargo employee in Arizona, said the bank pushed credit card accounts on local Native Americans who went to Wells Fargo branches to cash tribal checks.

“In the weeks following each check-cashing day, the Indian community members would flood the store with complaints about unwanted accounts, debit and credit cards they did not order, overdrafted accounts and account fees for accounts they never requested,” Hansen said in his declaration.

Angela Payden, who worked at a branch in Hudson, Wisconsin, said employees at her branch would drive to a University of Wisconsin campus 12 miles away, sign students up for checking accounts, then open other accounts in students’ names.

In Petaluma, the allegations outlined by Russo took place at a branch that was previously owned by Wachovia and World Savings before being acquired by Wells Fargo in 2008. It was unclear which of three Wells Fargo branches in Petaluma he was referring to. A woman who answered a phone Thursday at the South McDowell Boulevard branch declined to discuss Russo and directed any questions to the bank’s corporate office.

Russo, who was a senior teller, worked 15 years at the Petaluma branch. Upon its takeover by Wells Fargo, Russo said his longstanding customers began complaining about receiving multiple debit and credit cards they never requested. He attributed the cards to the bank’s aggressive promotions program called Solutions, which tied employee pay and bonuses to the opening of new accounts.

“Several such elderly customers complained to me that every time they met with a local banker at Wells Fargo for any reason, upwards of 9-10 new debit cards would be issued in their names without their authorization,” Russo said in a deposition given in April.

He said that “pressure cooker” environment led many employees to engage in other questionable practices to keep up with the unreasonable demands.

Most notably, he said Latino employees were instructed to go to the 7-Eleven in the 400 block of Washington Street and “corral” day laborers who hung out at the convenience store, convincing them they needed the accounts to avoid check-cashing fees.

He said fellow bank workers went back and forth to the store, bringing people into the branch to open accounts. They enticed prospective customers by offering to waive check-cashing fees if they signed up, Russo said.

“Based on discussions with other Wells Fargo employees and managers, I was aware that these practices were not just isolated to the Petaluma branch where I worked but were also widespread throughout California,” Russo said.

When Russo said he complained about the practice and other things to the branch manager, Didier Giron, he was told managers across the Bay Area were under “tremendous pressure” to increase sales.

He resigned of his own volition a short time later, he said.

This article includes information from the Los Angeles Times. You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.