Updated 4:53 p.m.
The U.S. Labor Department on Friday ordered Wells Fargo & Co. to reinstate a former branch manager fired for blowing the whistle on three subordinates who were opening new accounts for customers without their knowledge—the conduct at issue in the bank’s $185 million settlement last year with federal regulators and the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office.
Wells Fargo must pay the whistleblower, who was terminated in 2011, more than $577,500 in back pay, damages and legal fees, and the bank was told to post a notice alerting employees of their federal whistleblower protections, the Labor Department said.
The department did not identify the fired branch manager, citing agency policy, but said she was based in Southern California and raised concerns about the conduct of at least three “private bankers” who were working under her.
“No banking industry employee should fear retaliation for raising concerns about fraud and practices that violate consumer financial protections,” said Barbara Goto, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s regional administrator in San Francisco. “The U.S. Department of Labor will fully and fairly enforce the whistleblower protection laws under its jurisdiction.”
Wells Fargo can appeal the department’s order, but any such challenge would not stay the whistleblower’s reinstatement.
A Wells Fargo representative said in a statement: "We take seriously the concerns of current and former team members. This decision is a preliminary order and to date there has been no hearing on the merits of this case. We disagree with the findings and will be requesting a full hearing of the matter."
The Labor Department’s move comes nearly a year after the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office reached a $185 million settlement with Wells Fargo over allegations the bank opened up to 2.1 million accounts without customers’ knowledge or consent. Announcing the settlement, CFPB Director Richard Cordray said the bank’s widespread conduct was driven by a desire to “hit sales targets and receive bonuses.”
The allegations drew widespread outcry in Washington. U.S. lawmakers summoned then-Wells Fargo chief executive, John Stumpf, to testify on Capitol Hill.
Stumpf and other top executives—including James Strother, the bank’s general counsel since 2003—have since retired. But the scandal has continued to dog the bank.
In April, the bank’s board released a report—prepared by the law firm Shearman & Sterling—that faulted in part the legal department for failing to appreciate the gravity of situation facing Wells Fargo as alarm bells were sounding about unauthorized accounts. Wells Fargo namedformer Cravath, Swaine & Moore partner C. Allen Parker as the new general counsel in March.
Wells Fargo will face another ethics-related challenge in the coming weeks. A former Wells Fargo district manager claims in a federal suit in Connecticut that the bank fired him for his effort to train staff in the aftermath of the fake-accounts scandal. Meanwhile, a top-official at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency is suing his agency in Washington for information about why supervisors reprimanded him for his role in overseeing Wells Fargo.
This story was updated with comment from Wells Fargo.