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Protests, anger brew at Wells Fargo annual meeting in D.M.


Amid the hundreds of business meetings held around Greater Des Moines today, the Wells Fargo annual shareholders meeting likely received the most attention. 

At the start, Wells Fargo CEO Tim Sloan and board of directors Chairman Elizabeth Duke emphasized that the financial giant has changed many of its practices and is working with regulators as it attempts to get past account scandals of the last two years.

Wells Fargo, Central Iowa’s largest employer with almost 15,000 workers, held its annual shareholders meeting in Des Moines today for the first time. The company has about 16,000 total workers in the state with multiple locations.

“Restoring trust is our priority,” Sloan told about 250 in attendance at the downtown Marriott. “We have more work to do.”

Wells Fargo’s troubles began in 2016 when it was revealed workers opened fake accounts to meet sales goals. Then in 2017, the banking institution paid millions for signing customers to auto insurance without permission. This year the Federal Reserve sanctioned the company, saying it had to replace several directors and limit its asset growth. Last week federal regulators fined it $1 billion over its actions in mortgage and auto insurance practices.

Sloan and Duke pointed to a number of initiatives that they claim will correct the company’s bad practices and position it better for the future. They said the focus has been on rebuilding trust and focusing on customers. “We all know the company can do better,” Duke said.

But their remarks did not calm all attendees, with more than a dozen expressing frustration and anger over how their accounts were handled and how the company is connected to the Dakota Access pipeline and the gun industry, among other issues.

One attendee was Larry Ginter, a retired farmer from Rhodes, Iowa, and a longtime activist with the nonprofit organizing group Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement.

He said if he ran his farm the way Wells Fargo operated, “I’d be kicked out of Marshall County. I’d be a failure. You ought to hang your heads in shame, quite frankly.”

California State Treasurer John Chiang also attended and had tough words. 

“Integrity and trust matter,” he said. “Wells Fargo shares a long history with California. … Where is that bank today? Wells Fargo is a shadow of its former self.” He questioned where leaders and the board were when the abusive practices that hurt customers began.

Sister Nora Nash, an activist shareholder who is a member of a new stakeholder council, spoke about the need to take the comments seriously, especially the stories of several people who lost homes or businesses.

“There’s more to it than meets the eye,” Nash said.

The anger spilled over outside where dozens of protesters marched with signs bearing pointed messages questioning Wells Fargo’s lending and other practices and its effect on communities. 

“We’ve made some serious mistakes,” said Sloan. “When I stepped into this role [in late 2016}, I was very focused on making sure our leadership team was focused on uncovering anything else. … We are going in a new way. We really believe it’s changing for the better.”

The meeting ended with protesters chanting and clapping.” They were escorted out. Then the voting results were announced.

Shareholders approved a raise for Sloan and also voted in all nominees for the board of directors. Three proposals from shareholders did not get enough support to pass.

Not all who spoke at the meeting were frustrated. Several local Des Moines leaders welcomed the banking institution’s gathering and claimed their small business were supported by Wells Fargo loans, including Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver and Des Moines City Council member Chris Coleman.

“It’s really clear to me as I sit here today that Wells Fargo is in its own spring. We’re very proud that you’re here,” said Coleman.

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