Wells Fargo Accused of Sacrificial Firings After Fine

TRENTON, N.J. (CN) – Fired in the wake of Wells Fargo’s mortgage-kickback scandal, nine former staffers claim in court that the supervisors who instructed the illegal activity kept their jobs. 

The lawsuit in Mercer County Superior Court comes just over two years after Wells Fargo paid $35.7 million to settle charges by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Regulators said that Wells Fargo’s loan officers were accepting cash and other kickbacks in exchange for referrals from General Title, a realty title insurance company that shuttered in 2014.

Led by Egg Harbor resident Jeffrey Bellak, nine former Wells Fargo home-mortgage consultants from that era say the kickback practices were standard operating procedure, and that Wells Fargo switched to a new title company in 2013.

“Having paid an enormous fine for its illicit ‘leads’ arrangement with Genuine Title, and having pledged as part of the settlement to desist, Wells simply discontinued its relations with Genuine and substituted Patriot Land Title,” the March 6 complaint states.

Bellak and the other fired officers say Wells Fargo chose them randomly as sacrificial lambs a few months after settling with the CFPB.

“In order to create for the CFPB the false appearance of having pursued a true internal investigation, resulting in the removal of all personnel responsible for the prior violations, [Wells Fargo] arbitrarily selected the plaintiffs for termination,” the lawsuit states.

Meanwhile all the supervisors who had also been in on the scheme were allowed to keep their jobs, as was “virtually every employee engaged in the booking of home mortgage business” at the bank.

Wells Fargo spokesman Tom Goyda noted in a statement that the bank disputes the ex-employees’ claims and defends its “corrective action … following a thorough investigation.”

The CFPB noted as part of its January 2015 settlement announcement that the kickback scheme involved more than 100 officers at 18 Wells Fargo branches, most of whom were located in Maryland and Virginia.

The CFPB noted that “Wells Fargo had multiple warnings of the illegal arrangements between it loan officers and Genuine Title — including a federal lawsuit explicitly alleging the existence of such arrangements — [and yet] the bank failed to take action to stop the practices and did not have an adequate system in place to identify these violations.”

Wells Fargo paid $16 million in February 2016 to settle a federal class action brought by customers dissatisfied with Genuine’s settlement services.

Goyda, the bank’s spokesman, noted that none of the cases of improper referrals led to poor settlement services. “In no case was there any indication of settlement services that were out of line,” he said in a statment. “They were competitive.”

But Bellak and the other fired officers say the hefty fine did nothing to curb bad behavior at Wells Fargo. They say the bank “deliberately violated its court-approved settlement agreement” by switching from Genuine to Patriot.

When supervisors instructed the plaintiffs to work with Patriot instead of Genuine, according to the complaint, they believed the systematic kickbacks “to be a condition of their continued employment.”

No one at Wells Fargo educated or alerted the employees “as to the prevailing regulatory and statutory restrictions which limit and proscribe such practices,” the complaint continues.

Once the CFPB settlement took shape in early 2015, Bellak says Wells Fargo supervisors instructed employees to stop using Patriot “until this thing can be figured out.”

A companywide memo was sent out months later ordering employees to stop obtaining and using customer lists from title companies and other settlement service providers. But Bellak and seven of other plaintiffs say they were fired before that memo. The ninth, Charles McKenna, says he was fired in June.

Wells Fargo spokesman Goyda confirmed that the bank no longer does business with Patriot as a result of the internal investigation.

Mortgage kickbacks were believed for decades to be engrained in the real estate industry. Starting in the mid-2000s, federal investigators began looking into the practice more diligently, resulting in dozens of settlements with banks and mortgage settlement service providers.

Those efforts particularly increased after the creation of the CFPB, which now has authority to enforce the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act.

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