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story.lead_photo.caption People pass a Wells Fargo bank in Los Angeles on Thursday. The banking company was hit with a $1 billion civil penalty Friday by federal regulators over “reckless, unsafe or unsound practices and violations of law” that cost customers millions of dollars. Some customers had cars wrongfully repossessed.

Federal regulators hit Wells Fargo with a $1 billion civil penalty Friday after finding that the company had failed to catch problems in its auto and mortgage businesses over several years, cost customers millions of dollars and even wrongfully repossessed their cars.

For years, the bank's lax internal management led it to "engage in reckless, unsafe or unsound practices and violations of law," according to regulators.

Wells Fargo charged thousands of customers for auto insurance they did not need, driving some to default on their loans, then improperly confiscated the vehicles, according to the settlement documents. The bank also improperly charged some customers fees to lock in interest rates for mortgages.

"Since at least 2011, the Bank has failed to implement and maintain a compliance risk management program commensurate with the Bank's size, complexity and risk profile," one of the regulators, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, said in its consent order.

The widely expected settlement is among the most aggressive moves by regulators in President Donald Trump's administration to punish a big U.S. bank. It also could hobble Wells Fargo's efforts to move beyond more than a year of rolling scandals that have hampered its growth and tarnished its image.

The nation's third-largest bank submitted to an unprecedented order Friday that would give the Comptroller of the Currency the right to remove some of the lender's executives or board members.

The comptroller office said it "reserves the right to take additional supervisory action, including imposing business restrictions and making changes to executive officers or members of the bank's board of directors." The agency also could veto potential executive candidates.

"We have said all along that we will enforce the law. That is what we did here," Mick Mulvaney, acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said in a statement.

Shares in the company rose 1.98 percent to close at $52.56 on Friday.

Wells Fargo, which has repeatedly apologized for its misdeeds, pledged to repay affected customers. The bank has said it would spend $182 million to repay customers who had been charged for car insurance they did not need. It has not said how much it will refund customers who were improperly charged to lock in mortgage rates.

"For more than a year and a half, we have made progress on strengthening operational processes, internal controls, compliance and oversight, and delivering on our promise to review all of our practices and make things right for our customers," Timothy Sloan, president and chief executive of Wells Fargo, said in a statement Friday. "While we have more work to do, these orders affirm that we share the same priorities with our regulators."

The Trump administration has ushered in a period of resurgence for the banking industry. Trump has appointed business-friendly regulators and supported legislation in Congress to roll back rules that the industry has complained go too far. But Wells Fargo's running scandals have dampened those efforts, with Democrats and consumer advocates pointing to the bank's misdeeds as proof that the industry needs more oversight, not less.

The enforcement action is also the first announced by the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau since Mulvaney took control of the agency as acting director late last year. Democrats have criticized Mulvaney, who is also director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, for appearing to abandon the watchdog's job of punishing financial institutions and instead focusing on rolling back some of the bureau's most aggressive rules.

"Wells Fargo has a terrible track record of harming consumers and deserves every punishment they have received and more," Rep. Maxine Waters of California, the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, said in a statement.

The fine is a component of one of the largest enforcement cases in the bureau's six-year history. The Comptroller of the Currency's $500 million fine will be credited toward that amount, giving Wells Fargo a $1 billion bill overall.

The large fine is hardly crippling for Wells Fargo, however, which has more than $1 trillion in assets. The bank reported Friday that although the penalty drove down first-quarter profits by $800 million, it netted $4.7 billion.

"While the size of this fine is higher than anticipated, it is expected to be easily absorbed by quarterly earnings," Fitch Ratings said in a statement last week when the bank initially signaled it could face a $1 billion fine.

In an interview with Fox Business Network, Mulvaney defended the size of the penalty.

"I don't think the folks at Wells think a billion dollars is a small amount of money," he said. "I don't think anybody should think a billion dollars is a small amount of money. So this is a historically large collection, and we're very satisfied with the outcome."

The fine could further hobble the bank's efforts to rebuild its reputation after admitting in 2016 that it had opened millions of sham accounts that customers did not want.

In that case, Wells Fargo paid a combined $187 million in fines and penalties to federal regulators, including the bureau and the Los Angeles city attorney's office, and the company's CEO, John Stumpf, stepped down after being bashed by politicians on both side of the aisle.

"Our customers deserve only the best from Wells Fargo, and we are committed to delivering that," Sloan said.

Even with the latest settlement, Wells Fargo isn't in the clear. Its wealth-management business is reportedly under investigation on accusations of improprieties similar to those involving its consumer bank. And the Department of Justice is investigating the bank's currency-trading business.

The $500 million paid to the Comptroller of the Currency will go directly to the U.S. Treasury, according to the order. The $500 million paid to the consumer financial bureau will go into the bureau's civil penalties fund, which is used to help consumers who might have been harmed in other cases. Wells Fargo has previously said it began reimbursing auto loan and mortgage customers last year.

Information for this article was contributed by Laura J. Keller, Jesse Hamilton, Elizabeth Dexheimer and Felice Maranz of Bloomberg News and by Ken Sweet of The Associated Press.

A Section on 04/21/2018

Print Headline: Lender called 'reckless,' hit with $1B fine

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