WASHINGTON — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez didn’t join the parade of lawmakers ripping Wells Fargo Tuesday for bilking its own customers — she demanded to know why it backed companies that cage children and build oil pipelines.
The freshman congresswoman from The Bronx cited a number of articles that accused Wells Fargo of funding things like pipelines through the Dakotas, the private prison companies that run detention centers at the border for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and predatory payday loans.
Noting that Wells Fargo CEO Timothy Sloan said his bank does not put profits over people, Ocasio-Cortez asked if it was true the company backs the businesses she mentioned.
Sloan focused on the prison companies, Geo Group and CoreCivic, saying the bank decided two years ago to “exit the two relationships.”
Such facilities came under intense scrutiny last summer after news broke about the Trump administration’s ramped up policy of separating migrant children and parents at the border, and detaining them in harsh conditions.
“Why was the bank involved in the caging of children and financing the caging of children to begin with?” Ocasio-Cortez asked Sloan.
“I don’t know how to answer that question because we weren’t,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the bank later added that Wells Fargo had cut ties with CoreCivic and that the bank’s obligations to Geo Group were expiring. She said the bank condemned the separations as “anathema to our nation’s values” at the time.
A Geo Group spokeswoman said the company has never housed unaccompanied minors.
“This is a deliberate lie driven by an agenda aimed at abolishing ICE, knowing that we have nothing to do with passing, setting, or advocating for or against immigration laws or policies,” the spokeswoman said.
Ocasio-Cortez also brought up leaks from the infamous Keystone XL pipeline and the Dakota Access Pipeline, asking whether, since Wells Fargo was “a major investor” and lender, it should be liable for damages they cause.
Sloan derailed the freshman rep briefly by saying the bank did not invest in Keystone XL, but she persisted, focusing on the Dakota Access Pipeline and asking, “Should Wells Fargo be held responsible for the damages incurred by climate change due to the financing of fossil fuels and these projects?”
“I don’t know how you’d calculate that,” Sloan said.
To elaborate, Ocasio-Cortez offered examples such as cleaning up spills, reinvesting in eroded infrastructure, or building sea walls.
“Related to that pipeline?” Sloan asked. “I’m not aware that there’s been any of what you’ve described that’s occurred related to that pipeline.”
Ocasio-Cortez pressed the issue, asking why Wells Fargo shouldn’t pay for clean-ups of spills from pipelines it finances, such as five spills she cited from the Dakota pipe.
“Because we don’t operate the pipeline,” Sloan said, although he also said that Wells Fargo did way possible impacts from projects it backs, including the Dakota project.
“The reason we were one of the 17 or 19 banks that financed that is because our team reviewed the environmental impact and we concluded that it was a risk that we were willing to take,” Sloan said.
The Bronx lawmaker was not the only Democrat to push Sloan on the impacts to the companies it enables. Several asked why it was wiling to continue banking with gun companies who weapons have been used in mass killings around the country.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan) pointed to the bank’s stated human rights ethics policy of going “above and beyond” what the law and industry standards require, and asked why Wells Fargo hadn’t followed fellow industry titans Citibank and Bank of America in requiring business partners to require background checks when selling guns.
“Why does Wells Fargo continue to put profits over people by financing companies that are making weapons that are literally killing our children and our neighbors?” Maloney asked.
“We don’t put profits over people,” Sloan said. “We just don’t believe that it is a good idea to encourage banks to enforce legislation that doesn’t exist.”
Republicans who were critical of the bank’s business practices nevertheless came to Sloan’s defense over guns, prisons and the environment.
“Some of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are what I would call attacking Wells Fargo for conducting business that is perfectly legal,” said Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio). “The groups that were just mentioned — were any one of them breaking federal law when you were banking them?”
Sloan said they were not, but he did admit the bank considers more than just whether a customer abides by the law.
“One of the standards that we set in banking any sort of industry that has various reputational issues is to make sure that there’s a double-check beyond just the normal credit underwriting that we would do … so that we don’t run into those kinds of issues,” he said.