California Attorney General Launches Criminal Probe Into Wells Fargo Over Fake Accounts

John Stumpf is now gone from Wells Fargo, but his - and the bank's - problems may be just starting.

According to a report by the LA Times, California Department of Justice is investigating Wells Fargo on allegations of criminal identity theft over its creation of millions of unauthorized accounts, according to a search warrant sent to the bank’s San Francisco headquarters this month. The warrant and related documents, served Oct. 5 and obtained by The Times through a FOIA request, confirm that California AG Kamala Harris, in the final weeks of a run for U.S. Senate, has joined the growing list of public officials and agencies investigating the bank in connection with the accounts scandal.

As Reuters adds, the AG warrant seeks to seize documents at Wells, and cites probable cause that felonies were committed at the bank.

Harris’ office demanded the bank turn over a trove of information, including the identities of California customers who had unauthorized accounts opened in their names, information about fees related to those accounts, the names of the Wells Fargo employees who opened the accounts, the names of those employees’ managers and emails or other communication related to those accounts.  Her office is also requesting the same information about accounts opened by Wells Fargo workers in California for customers in other states.

While on the surface this would be an admirable move, it appears to be merely the latest attempt by a politician to score brownie points with voters. According to the LA Times, Harris has made her combat of wrongdoing in the financial services industry one of the themes of her Senatorial campaign. She has especially pointed to her role in negotiating $20 billion in relief from banks for California homeowners who lost homes or suffered losses in the housing bust. But that deal failed to live up to promises she had made to send those responsible to jail, opening her up to some criticism.

By investigating Wells Fargo, Harris could be trying to burnish her bank-busting credentials, said Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College.


“She’s looking for every advantage she can get,” he said. “Going after a big, unpopular bank can only help her with the electorate. Wells Fargo has gone into Voldemort territory when it comes to popularity.”

As for Wells, it may have to lawyer up as this time a settlement won't cut it: documents filed along with the search warrant argue that there is probable cause to believe Wells Fargo violated two sections of the state penal code — one outlawing certain types of impersonation, the other outlawing the unauthorized use of personal information. Both violations can be charged as felonies, punishable by imprisonment for more than a year.

Still, it’s not clear as of yet whether Harris’ office is considering charges against individual bank workers, high-level bank executives or the bank itself. The investigation could lead to charges beyond the identity-theft allegations used to secure the search warrant.

In the weeks since Sept. 8, when the Los Angeles city attorney’s office and federal bank regulators announced a $185-million settlement with Wells Fargo over the creation of the accounts, lawmakers and other regulators have questioned whether the bank may have violated fraud, labor and securities laws.

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Meanwhile, indicating just how oblivious the market has become to pretty much any newsflow, Reuters reported that today Wells Fargo has set guidance on its delayed 10-year senior holdco US dollar bond at T+130bp, tighter than initial price thoughts of T+140bp-145bp, a lead on the deal told IFR.  The deal was announced on Tuesday and originally slated to price that day, however it was pushed back perhaps after S&P revised Well's outlook to negative from stable on Tuesday.

"News of the delay came after investors swarmed the self-lead deal with some US$10bn in orders."

It only stands to reason that if a rating downgrade helpd push the pricing on the bank's bonds tighter, after today's latest negative news, the issues will be