Former Federal Investigator Says Government Didn't Investigate Wells Fargo Whistleblower Cases - NBC Bay Area
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Former Federal Investigator Says Government Didn't Investigate Wells Fargo Whistleblower Cases

Darrell Whitman, a former investigator for OSHA's Whistleblower Protection Program, says his agency failed to investigate warnings from Wells Fargo employees in 2010.

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    NEWSLETTERS

    A former OSHA whistleblower investigator says in 2010, the government received complaints from two Bay Area Wells Fargo employees. Darrell Whitman claims instead of investigating the complaints, his agency mishandled the cases. He says if his agency had done its job, Wells Fargo’s widespread practice of opening fraudulent accounts could have been exposed and fixed years ago. Liz Wagner reports in a story that aired on Oct. 18, 2016. (Published Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2016)

    Six years ago, two Wells Fargo employees filed whistleblower complaints with the federal government.

    They sent their cases to the Department of Labor’s Whistleblower Protection Program, which is administered by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

    But an investigator who reviewed cases for the agency says no one actually investigated the complaints.

    This revelation comes as the nation reels from an enormous Wells Fargo banking scandal. The San Francisco-based company was fined $185 million last month after employees opened two million phony bank accounts and credit cards to meet sales goals.

    Now Darrell Whitman is breaking his silence to the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit, claiming if his agency had done its job, the bank’s widespread practice of opening fraudulent customer accounts could have been exposed and fixed years ago.

    “I think it’s pretty obvious they don’t follow protocols,” Whitman said of OSHA. “You don’t do the job, that’s pretty close to dropping the ball, isn’t it?”

    Whitman worked in the agency’s San Francisco office from 2010 to 2015. He says in May 2010, OSHA received two complaints from former Wells Fargo employees who claimed the company retaliated against them for raising red flags about the bank’s business practices.

    Whitman says instead of investigating, the agency held the complaints for six months. He says in November 2010, after the two complainants decided to file federal lawsuits against Wells Fargo, his supervisors assigned him the cases simply to close them.

    “They assigned it to me only for the purpose of dismissing the complaint,” he said.

    According to OSHA policy, the agency is relieved of pursuing whistleblower cases when complainants head to court. But, Whitman says the agency should have started and completed the investigations before the whistleblowers filed their lawsuits.

    Wells Fargo Employee Blows the Whistle in St. Helena

    Whitman’s insights have frustrated Yesenia Guitron, one of the complainants.

    “Now I know that nothing happened with my complaint. It just sat on someone’s desk,” Guitron said. “At the time, I didn’t know. But I was certainly trusting that everyone was doing what they were supposed to do. And they didn’t.”

    Guitron turned to the Whistleblower Protection Program after Wells Fargo fired her in January 2010.

    She says she first noticed in 2008 that something wasn’t right at the St. Helena branch where she worked as a personal banker. Guitron says customers would come in complaining of fees and collection calls for accounts they never opened.

    She says she notified her manager and human resources department and called the company’s ethics hotline to report what she describes as a clear pattern of intentional fraud by other employees. Guitron believes she was terminated for speaking up about unethical business practices.

    Guitron says she expected OSHA to investigate her complaint.

    “I think everyone files with the expectation that they are going to be investigated,” she said, “and not just dismissed after six months of sitting on someone’s desk.”

    In the final investigation reports Whitman prepared for Guitron’s case and the case of the second Wells Fargo whistleblower, he noted that the company declined to provide a defense to the allegations.

    He says that should have resulted in an automatic “merit finding” – or win – for the complainants. And a win, Whitman says, would have required OSHA to provide details about the complaints to banking regulators, which could have prompted them to take corrective action years ago.

    In September, six years after Guitron submitted her complaint to the government, Congress grilled former CEO John Stumpf about the company’s sale practices. Lawmakers also raised questions about who knew what – and when.

    The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was formed in 2011 and says it learned of Wells Fargo’s sales practices in the summer of 2013. The Securities and Exchange Commission, which protects investors by regulating the securities industry, declined to comment on when it first found out about the fraudulent accounts.

    Judge Dismisses Guitron’s Federal Lawsuit

    Guitron’s retaliation lawsuit was dismissed in 2012. Her attorney says although the judge found some evidence of unlawful conduct at Wells Fargo, the judge decided there was justification for her termination. Guitron lost an appeal in 2015.

    Wells Fargo says it doesn’t tolerate retaliation against employees who report their concerns, the company said in a statement

    “We regret and take full responsibility for the incidents in which customers received a product they did not request, as that is inconsistent with the values and culture we strive to live up to every day,” the company wrote.

    The bank also says it is making “fundamental changes to help ensure team members are not being pressured to sell products.” As of Oct.1, Wells Fargo ended all product sales goals.

    OSHA Investigator Raised Red Flags Before

    This isn’t the first time Whitman raised red flags about the OSHA Whistleblower Protection Program. In 2015, he spoke to the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit, claiming supervisors ordered him to close cases without properly investigating them.

    Last year Whitman filed a retaliation complaint of his own after he was fired. The complaint is pending before the Office of Special Counsel, which reviews retaliation claims submitted by federal employees.

    OSHA says it cannot comment on internal personnel matters or on specific whistleblower cases, but the agency says it’s now taking a second look at whistleblower complaints involving Wells Fargo.

    In a Sep. 26 letter to U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has emerged as a fervent critic of Wells Fargo, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez says OSHA is reviewing the entire docket of both closed and open Wells Fargo cases since 2010. Perez says the reviews include an examination of OSHA’s coordination with other federal agencies.

    One of those complaints may involve Claudia Ponce de Leon, a former Wells Fargo branch manager in Pomona, Calif. She filed a whistleblower case with OSHA in 2011 after she was fired. Whitman says the complaint crossed his desk briefly, before it was transferred to another investigator.

    That complaint has been pending for five years. Ponce de Leon’s attorney, Yosef Peretz, says the agency finally contacted him last year to arrange an interview with his client.

    “I gave them a date and a time that they requested,” Peretz said. “Never heard back.”

    Guitron says Wells Fargo – and many layers of government – let down Wells Fargo whistleblowers. Now, she has a message for OSHA.

    “I would tell them, do their job,” she said. “It’s not fair just to ignore people’s cases like my case.”

    If you have a tip for the Investigative Unit, email theunit@nbcbayarea.com or call 888-996-TIPS. 

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