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By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON Oct 13 Former Wells Fargo & Co
general manager Claudia Ponce de Leon filed a
whistleblower complaint in December 2011 with federal labor
regulators, alleging she was fired for telling superiors about
employees opening unauthorized accounts.
Nearly five years later, she has not been interviewed by
investigators at the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and
Health Administration (OSHA), said her attorney Yosef Peretz.
Her complaint claiming retaliation by Wells Fargo for
reporting potential misconduct is one of several dozens filed
against the bank over the last 14 years, Reuters has found.
Their existence shows U.S. government regulators are still
not meeting targets set by law -- a problem that was also
flagged in a critical internal report issued in September 2015.
As of Oct. 6, the agency had yet to close out 34 of the 91
complaints it has received since fiscal year 2002 from Wells
Fargo employees alleging they faced retaliation after reporting
potential wrongdoing, according to department data obtained
through a Reuters public records request.
The department did not disclose details of the claims or the
dates they were filed, and it remained unclear how many were
related to the ongoing scandal involving Wells staffers opening
as many as 2 million accounts without customer permission. It is
also unclear how those 91 complaints against Wells Fargo
compares with other corporations.
The bank last month agreed to pay $190 million in fines and
customer restitution in a settlement with the Consumer Finance
Protection Bureau and other regulators.
In late September, Reuters identified Ponce de Leon and at
least four other former Wells Fargo employees who reported to
OSHA between 2009 and 2014 that they were fired for raising
concerns about the opening of unauthorized accounts and credit
cards. Of the five OSHA complaints seen by
Reuters, Ponce de Leon's case has been pending since December
2011, and another 2014 case was initially dismissed by an OSHA
investigator on grounds that were later reversed on appeal by a
Labor Department administrative law judge. The bank ultimately
reached a settlement with the employee in 2015.
The three other complaints - one in 2009 and two in 2010 -
were transferred to state and federal courts, respectively.
One employee of the Labor Department involved with the cases
has since filed his own whistleblower claim against the agency,
alleging his office has a history of mishandling cases. His
complaint does not reference the Wells Fargo complaints
"It's absolutely outrageous that whistleblowers contacted
OSHA as early as 2009 about potential fraud at Wells Fargo, and
yet these government bureaucrats failed to do their job," said
Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican who has been looking
into how Wells Fargo's sales practices have impacted small
Labor Department Secretary Thomas Perez said last month that
the department has launched a "top-to-bottom" review of prior
Wells Fargo whistleblower complaints.
Agency spokesman Jesse Lawder said it is the department's
policy not to comment on specific whistleblower cases, but said
the review aims to "ensure whistleblowers receive the
protections and remedies afforded them."
Richele Messick, a Wells Fargo spokeswoman, could not
comment on individual cases, but said the bank "does not
tolerate retaliation against team members who report their
concerns and will take measures to protect team members from
From fiscal year 2005 through 2015, less than two percent of
all whistleblower complaints filed with OSHA were won on the
merits, federal statistics show. The rest were either settled,
dismissed or transferred to federal courts.
Lawyers who represent whistleblowers say OSHA investigators
face challenges. One problem is the "crushing case load," which
can lead to significant delays, said attorney Jason Zuckerman.
OSHA, which received 3,288 whistleblower cases in fiscal
year 2015, currently has 88 full-time investigators across the
country in 10 regional offices.
OSHA refers whistleblower complaints to the relevant federal
regulators to investigate. But the office does not always refer
them promptly, or sometimes at all, the Labor Department's
inspector general found last year.
An earlier audit in September 2010 found that 80 percent of
complaints it reviewed were not properly investigated, meaning
OSHA staff did not take steps such as interviewing the employee,
obtaining a witness list or allowing the employee to refute the
The subsequent audit in September 2015 noted improvements,
finding that 18 percent of complaints reviewed failed to meet
certain investigative criteria.
Still, it also found that 72 percent of all of OSHA's
investigations were not performed within the 30, 60 or 90-day
time frames specified by various whistleblower protection laws.
OSHA disputed some of those findings at the time, saying the
audit relied on "inaccurate data" to determine how well it
referred cases to other regulators.
Labor Department spokeswoman Amanda McClure said OSHA's
practice is to send copies of complaints when it receives them
and its findings at the conclusion of the investigation to
either the Securities and Exchange Commission or the CFPB,
depending on which federal whistleblower law applies.
It is not clear whether OSHA, which received complaints of
the unauthorized account openings at Wells Fargo dating at least
as far as 2009, referred the matters to federal banking
regulators, such as the CFPB and the Office of the Comptroller
of the Currency.
The CFPB, a new agency launched in July 2011, has said it
did not start investigating the issue until it received tips
from whistleblowers in mid-2013.
The OCC has said it first learned about the issues after it
received a "small number" of complaints from consumers and bank
employees in March 2012. Those complaints and media reports in
December 2013 led the regulator to step up its supervision of
An SEC spokeswoman declined to comment on whether OSHA had
referred the complaints about Wells Fargo's sales practices.
A CFPB spokesman declined to comment on whether the office
had received any OSHA referrals involving Wells sales abuses.
SITTING IN A STACK OF FILES
Darrell Whitman - a former OSHA investigator in the San
Francisco office from 2010-2015 - was assigned to three of the
five cases examined by Reuters from former Wells Fargo employees
alleging retaliation for reporting improper sales tactics.
Whitman said he only briefly dealt with Ponce de Leon's 2011
case before it was transferred to another investigator, and he
was instructed to close the two 2010 cases because they were
slated to be transferred to a federal court.
Another investigator assigned at one point to Ponce de
Leon's case, Susan Kamlet, told Reuters the case sat in a stack
of other files and that her manager controlled which cases had
Now the former OSHA investigators are making their own
claims of retaliation.
Whitman alleges he was fired for raising concerns about the
agency's mishandling of whistleblower complaints, and Kamlet
says she was fired for supporting his accounts and for raising
concerns about a particular case she was investigating.
Whitman has since filed a whistleblower complaint of his own
with the Office of Special Counsel, an office that investigates
retaliation against federal employees.
His complaint is still pending.
The Labor Department spokeswoman and the Office of Special
Counsel declined to comment.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Edward