Q&A with Elizabeth Warren: the senator talks about the presidential race and Wells Fargo scandal

Senator Elizabeth Warren at the opening of Cambridge’s Y2Y youth shelter. Photo: Zengzheng Wang.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has been one of the most prominent critics of Wall Street and big banks since the 2008 recession began. Her tough interrogations of bankers and businessmen in the Senate Banking Committee launched many viral videos, the most recent of which is her questioning of Wells Fargo’s then-CEO John Stumpf. Wells Fargo is under fire following revelations that bank employees opened over 2 million unauthorized accounts under their customers’ names—reportedly the actions of employees trying to reach their sales goals. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a federal agency originally proposed by Warren, also fined the bank $100 million. Earlier this year, the former Harvard Law School professor endorsed Hillary Clinton for President after the Democratic primaries ended and has tangled with Republican nominee Donald Trump over Twitter. She made some time to speak with Spare Change News about Clinton, Trump, and Wells Fargo. What follows was lightly edited for length and clarity.

Spare Change News: I almost feel obligated to ask about the election this close to November 8. With so many people saying they won’t vote for either candidate, how do you make the case for Hillary Clinton? Especially to those disappointed with her on the Left?

Senator Warren: Hillary Clinton spent her life fighting for children, fighting for women, fighting for families, fighting for health care, fighting for human rights, fighting for a level playing field. She’s a tough fighter with a good heart, and I feel that’s a good start for a president.

 

What about criticism that Clinton is too cozy with big business?

I worry about everyone in Washington being too cozy with Wall St. Government is supposed to work for the people, not for Wall St. That’s what we’re fighting for out here. That’s what the Wells Fargo hearing is about: making it clear that government has an oversight function to play.

 

It seemed like a lot of real issues were buried under the various scandals that took place for both candidates. Are there any issues you wish were explored more during this campaign or in the debates?

Democrats pushed on some really important economic issues. [Democrats focused on] making college affordable and dealing with $1.3 trillion in outstanding student loans. Democrats focused on increasing the minimum wage. Democrats focused on reigning in Wall St. Democrats focused on protecting and expanding Social Security. I think those are core economic issues and I think they reflect our core values. This election, though, was hijacked by Donald Trump and a campaign built on hate.

 

Trump’s rise in politics is often tied to people feeling left behind in the economy—a feeling he exploited with a lot of xenophobic language. What’s your take on that interpretation?

People are angry and they have a right to be. Wages are flattened, kids can’t graduate college without getting crushed by student loan debt, seniors can’t stretch Social Security checks. At the same time economy continues to grow: corporate profits break records, our GDP keeps going up. If you look at where America stands, overwhelmingly people support Social Security, they support raising minimum wage, they support common sense gun control, they support investing in education. Those are ways to make our economy work for everyone, those are ways to make our country safer for everyone. Donald Trump is not the answer. The only way we’re going to get a government that works for everyone… is if we use our voices and our votes and demand that Washington work for everyone.

 

You recently pressed Wells Fargo’s external auditor, KPMG, over its failure to identify the bank’s account-opening fraud. What were some of the big questions you raised?

I’m no stranger to bad behavior. But even I’m blown away by the facts in the Wells Fargo scandal. Wells Fargo created more than 2 million accounts that were fake. They transferred money from real customer accounts into these fake accounts costing customers millions of dollars in fees. And why? Because the managers had figured out they could pump up their stock price by showing how well they were cross selling. And it was all fake!

I want to know how a fraud that large emerged with only low level employees knowing about it. Wells Fargo’s CEO used what came out of that fraud to enrich his company and to enrich himself. I want to know how many people knew and when they knew about this fraud.

The average bank has between 2 and 3 products that customers have, like a checking account, saving accounts, and credit card with that bank. Wells Fargo was pushing towards eight products, and no one was asking “What is so extraordinary about Wells Fargo?”

[KPMG] is an accounting firm—they’re supposed to sign off that the appropriate safe guards in place to make sure employees are following the law and that the customers’ accounts are fully protected. These are banks—their job is to handle customers’ money, and there are strict controls and oversights on how that’s supposed to occur. How does a fraud this massive go on for years without being detected? I don’t believe that this started and finished with a bunch of $12 an hour employees.

 

Senators are calling for stronger claw back measures, and you’ve called for greater measures beyond that. How do we hold banks like Wells Fargo and their CEOs accountable?

So there are two parts to that answer. One is that we need strong, courageous investigators like the CFPB and we need more personal responsibility for the executives in charge of these big banks. Someone needs to be held responsible. There’s a silver lining in the Wells Fargo scandal, and that is that it also serves as an example of how government can work for working families. The CFPB, the government agency which we created after the 2008 crisis, went after Wells Fargo hard. And thanks to their work customers are getting all their money back and Wells Fargo is paying a record breaking fine. I mention this because the CFPB is the same agency that Republicans­­­­ are desperately trying to get rid of so it can’t hold big banks like Wells Fargo accountable.

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