Elizabeth Warren Accuses Wells Fargo Chief of ‘Gutless Leadership’

WASHINGTON — The more the chief executive of Wells Fargo tried to explain, the more skeptical the senators became.

For more than two hours testifying before the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday, John G. Stumpf expressed regret that Wells Fargo had created as many as two million bogus bank and credit card accounts without its customers’ consent. He apologized for failing to stop the illicit behavior sooner, and vowed to make amends.

Some of the senators on the committee scoffed. Mr. Stumpf, they said, was offering little more than platitudes while allowing his top executives to avoid any real consequences — like being fired or having their enormous pay packages clawed back.

Instead, the bank’s lowest-paid workers have borne the brunt of the punishment, the senators noted. Senior management, they said, seemed to ignore this practice because it helped turn the bank into a profit machine.

Addressing Mr. Stumpf directly, Senator Elizabeth Warren took the unusual step of telling the bank chief executive that he should resign.

“Have you returned one nickel of the money that you earned while this scandal was going on?” asked Ms. Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts. “Have you fired any senior management, the people who actually oversaw this fraud?”

“No,” Mr. Stumpf answered.

Ms. Warren added: “Your definition of accountability is to push this on your low-level employees. This is gutless leadership.”

It has been several years since a banking scandal has consumed Wall Street and Washington the way Wells Fargo’s problems have in recent weeks. The extent of the problems came to light on Sept. 8, when Wells agreed to a $185 million settlement with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Los Angeles city attorney.

Unlike some of the arcane trading scandals that have befallen large investment banks recently, the illicit activity at Wells is easy for the public to comprehend: Bank employees were creating fake bank accounts to pad their sales numbers.

As a result, thousands of Wells Fargo customers nationwide paid overdraft fees and late fees on credit cards and deposit accounts they never knew they had. The bank has refunded more than $2 million to its customers and is still reviewing whether other bogus fees were charged.

The bank has said that it learned about the illegal practice in 2013 and traced it back to 2011, but in his deposition on Tuesday, Mr. Stumpf said that the unwanted account openings may have started earlier and that the bank was looking to see if they extended as far back as 2009.

The Banking Committee, one member noted on Tuesday, showed a rare display of bipartisanship in denouncing Wells Fargo.

Mr. Stumpf’s testimony is more likely to fuel public outrage than to contain it.

Mr. Stumpf disagreed with senators when they described the illicit sales as part of a deliberate scheme to increase the bank’s bottom line. He said the 5,300 employees who had been terminated over the issue — many of them earning $12 an hour — deserved to lose their jobs.

“The 5,300 were dishonest, and that is not part of our culture,” Mr. Stumpf said. “That is not scapegoating.”

Mr. Stumpf said the employees who were fired included “managers, and managers of managers, and an area president.”

The 63-year-old chairman and chief executive was repeatedly asked whether he would seek to claw back compensation from top executives who should have done more to stop creation of the sham accounts.

Many of those questions centered on Carrie Tolstedt, who ran Wells’s community banking operations, in which all of the problems occurred. She was allowed to retire at age 56 in July, with a compensation package totaling tens of millions of dollars. She is still eligible for additional compensation this year, the Senate panel revealed.

“Explain to the public: What does accountability look like when an executive departs with millions of dollars?” asked Senator Richard C. Shelby, Republican of Alabama and the committee’s chairman.

Mr. Stumpf said he had talked weekly with Ms. Tolstedt, first discussing the problem with the fake accounts in 2013, the same year it was exposed in a Los Angeles Times article.

Yet, the illegal activity continued for another three years, and employees were still being fired for creating the questionable accounts well into this year.

Despite this, Mr. Stumpf said he had not wanted to fire Ms. Tolstedt because she had performed well in other duties like branding and improving customer loyalty, which he said were “top of class” among large banks.

Mr. Stumpf said that the decision on getting back compensation rested squarely with the bank’s board. Even though it was pointed out to Mr. Stumpf by the committee that he was the board’s chairman, he was adamant that he could not get involved.

“I am not part of that process. I want to make sure nothing I say will prejudice their process,” said Mr. Stumpf, who was named board chairman in 2010.

He suggested that the board would also consider whether he should lose some of his compensation, which last year totaled more than $19 million.

But Mr. Stumpf did not say whether he thought his pay — the highest among the nation’s top bank executives over the last five years — should be docked.

“You keep saying, ‘the board, the board,’” Ms. Warren said. “You describe them like they are strangers you met in a dark alley. Mr. Stumpf, you are the chairman of the board.”

Mr. Stumpf arrived at the committee room shortly before 10 a.m. flanked by a large number of bank employees. His right hand was wrapped in a large bandage. A Wells Fargo spokeswoman said that Mr. Stumpf had hurt his hand playing with his grandchildren.

Wells Fargo faces a separate investigation by the House Financial Services Committee. Mr. Stumpf has been invited to testify before that committee too.

Prosecutors in New York, North Carolina and California have opened inquiries into the sham accounts. But it is too early to say whether those investigations are focusing on potentially criminal behavior or civil offenses.

On Tuesday, Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, called on the Securities and Exchange Commission to join the fray. He wants the S.E.C. to examine whether the bank violated internal control provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act by failing to stop the “widespread fraud.”

During the Senate Banking Committee hearing, Mr. Merkley described how former Wells Fargo employees feared they would lose their jobs if they did not meet sales goals. Others worked weekends trying to keep up. And when they fell behind, Mr. Merkley said, some were coached by fellow employees on how to create the fake accounts.

“I am very sorry that that happened,” Mr. Stumpf told the panel. “That is not what we wanted to have happen.”