The Rap Sheets of the Big Ventilator Producers

Earlier this year, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Carolina announced that a company called ResMed had agreed to pay more than $37 million to settle allegations under the False Claims Act that it illegally paid kickbacks to promote sales of equipment used to treat sleep apnea.

The case did not receive much attention at the time, but ResMed, which also produces ventilators, is now one of the companies involved in the controversy over the distribution of equipment that hospitals desperately need to save lives during the coronavirus pandemic.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other state chief executives have been complaining about price-gouging and shipments that fail to materialize, as health systems across the country compete for a woefully inadequate supply of ventilators, some of which have reportedly been exported.

This apparent profiteering should come as no surprise, given the track record of the ventilator industry, in which ResMed is not the only producer with a history of alleged misconduct. In fact, all the big publicly traded companies in the industry have paid millions of dollars in penalties in False Claims Act, kickback and bribery cases.  Along with ResMed, they are Philips, General Electric, Hill-Rom, and Medtronic.

In 2016 a Philips subsidiary called Respironics agreed to pay $34.8 million to settle allegations similar to those faced by ResMed involving the payment of kickbacks to suppliers for the purchase of sleep apnea equipment. In 2013 the Securities and Exchange Commission ordered Philips to pay $4.5 million for violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act stemming from improper payments to healthcare officials in Poland.  

In 2011 GE Healthcare agreed to pay $30 million to settle False Claims Act allegations that a subsidiary caused Medicare to overpay for a radiopharmaceutical used in certain cardiac diagnostic imaging procedures by giving the federal government false or misleading information about doses.

Also in 2011 Hill-Rom agreed to pay $41.8 million to settle allegations that for years it knowingly submitted numerous and repeated false claims to the Medicare program for certain specialized medical equipment – bed support surfaces for treatment of pressure ulcers or bed sores – for patients for whom the equipment was not medically necessary.

Since 2006 Medtronic and its subsidiaries have paid more than $160 million in penalties in eight False Claims Act cases. The largest of these was a $75 million settlement agreed to by Medtronic Spine to resolve allegations that its marketing activities caused hospitals to submit false claims for kyphoplasty procedures, minimally-invasive surgeries used to treat compression fractures of the spine caused by osteoporosis, cancer or benign lesions.

Along with the False Claims Act cases, which are civil matters, a Medtronic subsidiary agreed to plead guilty and pay more than $17 million in 2018 to resolve a criminal charge that it promoted a neurovascular device for uses that were not approved by the FDA and were potentially dangerous.

It is true that none of these cases involved mechanical ventilators, but they do suggest something about ethical practices at the five companies. These are corporations accused of putting their own financial interests ahead of those of the federal government and thus the taxpayers. One of them has a subsidiary that is literally a corporate criminal.  

The coronavirus crisis is exposing many vulnerabilities of U.S. society. Among them is that the survival of many thousands of people now depends in large part on the behavior of a group of companies that have been something less than model corporate citizens.

This makes it all the more scandalous that the Trump Administration refuses to make full use of the Defense Production Act to end profiteering in the ventilator industry and force it to serve the needs of the country during this national emergency.

Bailouts and Bad Actors

The $500 billion business rescue provision of the coronavirus relief bill will be less of a slush fund than originally envisioned, thanks to the addition of some significant safeguards such as the creation of a special inspector general and a Congressional oversight commission.

There has also been a welcome move toward transparency through a requirement that the Treasury Secretary post details on each loan, loan guarantee or other form of assistance soon after the award is made.

Yet there is one risk the bill does not address: the possibility that among the companies sharing in the federal government’s largesse will be regulatory scofflaws and other corporate bad actors.

There are some notable precedents for such an outcome. The Troubled Asset Relief Program, in fact, was largely an effort to bail out the financial institutions whose misconduct to a great extent caused the meltdown of 2008. The biggest TARP recipient, with $67 billion in support from the Treasury Department, was American International Group, which had sold large quantities of risky credit default swaps. Other giant banks that helped generate toxic securities were also high on the TARP loan list, including Bank of America and Citigroup ($45 billion each) as well as JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo ($25 billion each).

Along with the TARP loans, these banks also benefitted from massive liquidity programs implemented by the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The data available on these programs, which include lots of short-term loans that were frequently rolled over, add up to more than $3 trillion for Bank of America and $2 billion each for Citigroup and Morgan Stanley.

On top of all this, banks received what amounted to subsidies — $435 million in the case of JPMorgan Chase – through incentives provided to mortgage servicers under the Home Affordable Modification Program.

It was unavoidable that the TARP program, designed to rescue the whole financial system, would end up assisting bad actors. The problem is that those corporations continued to exhibit anti-social behavior after being bailed out.

Consulting the data in Violation Tracker, we see that since 2010, Bank of America has paid more than $63 billion in penalties. Much of this stems from lawsuits linked to the period leading up to the financial crisis, including those brought against companies purchased by BofA, especially Merrill Lynch and the predatory home lender Countrywide Financial.

Yet BofA also got in new trouble of its own. For instance, in 2014 it was ordered by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to provide $727 million in relief to credit card customers who had been charged for services they were not receiving.

Since 2010 Citigroup has paid more than $16 billion in penalties. Here, too, much of that total relates to cases stemming from the crisis – but not all. In 2015 it, along with other major U.S. and European banks, pled guilty to conspiring to manipulate the foreign exchange market. Citi’s penalty was $925 million.

And then there’s the case of Wells Fargo, which in the years after getting bailed out, has become a poster child for corporate irresponsibility as a result of its brazen sham-account scandal and other controversies.

Some of the bank misconduct of recent years could have been prevented if the federal government retained the equity stakes it took in TARP recipients while the loans were in effect. In the case of AIG the government had taken control of about 80 percent of the company. Smaller stakes were taken in other recipients.

The government used those stakes mainly to make sure that the loans were repaid, and in the end the feds made a profit on TARP. Yet those ownership interests could also have been used to retain a measure of influence over corporate governance and decision-making on issues relating to regulatory compliance and overall good behavior.

This approach could also apply to the coronavirus relief package, which seems to allow for the possibility that the federal government will take equity stakes in corporations that receive large amounts of financial assistance.

Now as in 2008, Congress cannot avoid providing assistance to bad actors, since doing so would harm employees at those firms. Yet it could use equity holdings to discourage corporations from resuming their bad behavior after we get through the pandemic.

Note: Data on the companies that received TARP bailout loans and liquidity assistance from the Fed and the FDIC can be found on this new Subsidy Tracker page, which also contains a list of corporate recipients of Recovery Act grants, loans and tax credits. Data on the misconduct of these and other companies can be found in Violation Tracker.  

A Pandemic Is No Time to Dismantle Regulatory Safeguards

As much of the economy melts down amid the coronavirus pandemic, many large corporations are lining up for financial bailouts from the federal government. Assuming the right safeguards are put in place, these payments may be justified. Yet there is a risk that big business may also seek another kind of assistance whose benefit is more dubious: relief from regulations.

Some loosening of restrictions make sense in a crisis, and federal regulators are already taking steps to address immediate needs. The FDA is changing rules so that private labs and state health departments can more readily use covid-19 tests developed outside of the agency. HHS is allowing healthcare providers to bill Medicare for telemedicine sessions.

Those are the no-brainers. But what about the decision by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to relax restrictions on truck driver hours for those making emergency deliveries? Do we want sleepy drivers on the road, even if they are doing essential work?

And then there are the calls from big banks for lower capital requirements and the easing of periodic stress tests. The point of those requirements is to make sure banks are in a position to weather a downturn. Relaxing the rules is something the big banks were urging well before the pandemic, and their push now may be little more than an effort to exploit the crisis.

We are likely to see more calls for regulatory easing both from corporations and from Trump Administration agencies such as the EPA that have already been trying to undermine existing safeguards.

There is also a debate on whether regulatory rulemaking should continue at a time when many regulators are working from home and many advocates may have a harder time monitoring current proceedings.

Since many of those proceedings involve efforts by industry and the Trump Administration to roll back or eliminate current rules, delays would provide a welcome obstacle to the deregulatory juggernaut. On the other hand, agencies may use the pandemic as an excuse to reduce the opportunities for public interest groups to intervene in the process.

Another gnarly question is how to handle bailouts for corporations that have less than stellar records when it comes to regulatory compliance. We don’t want to ignore the needs of employees of those companies who might otherwise lose their jobs, but it also doesn’t feel right to be handing over large sums to firms that have flouted the law.

If those payments are going to happen, among the strings that need to be attached could be provisions requiring companies to strictly adhere to all applicable laws and regulations. Scofflaws would be compelled to repay the money and face other serious consequences.

Big business should not be allowed to use the covid-19 pandemic as cover for undermining safeguards that protect us from the many other dangers in the world.

Note: Violation Tracker has just been updated. It now contains more than 412,000 entries representing more than $616 billion in penalties. The corporation with the biggest jump in its penalty total is Wells Fargo, due to its recent $3 billion sham-account settlement with the federal government.

Another Crooked Bank?

For the past three years, Wells Fargo has been pilloried for having created millions of bogus accounts to extract unauthorized fees from its customers. Now it seems Wells may not have been the only financial institution to engage in this type of fraud.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, despite having been somewhat defanged by the Trump Administration, has just filed suit against Fifth Third Bank for similar behavior. Based in Cincinnati, Fifth Third is a large regional bank with branches in ten states and total assets of about $170 billion.

According to the CFPB’s complaint, the problem at Fifth Third arose when it, like Well Fargo, imposed overly aggressive cross-selling targets on its employees, causing them to create bogus accounts to meet those goals. These actions not only generated illicit fees, the complaint states, but also exposed customers to a higher risk of identity theft when, for example, online banking accounts were created without their knowledge. The issuance of unauthorized credit cards may have harmed customers’ credit scores.

The agency is asking a federal court to order Fifth Third to stop these practices and pay damages and penalties for its actions. The bank issued a press release denying the allegations and vowing to fight the lawsuit vigorously.

Although its “rap sheet” is a lot shorter than those of Wells Fargo and the other megabanks, Fifth Third has not been free from controversy. Violation Tracker’s tally on the company runs to more than $132 million in penalties.

One of the cases on the list was brought by the CFPB. In 2015 the agency announced that Fifth Third would pay $21.5 million to resolve two actions—one involving allegations of using racially discriminatory loan pricing and another involving deceptive marketing of credit card add-on products. The second case included allegations similar to those in the new case: telemarketers for the bank were alleged to have failed to tell cardholders that by agreeing to receive information about a product they would be enrolled and charged a fee.

Fifth Third’s largest past penalty was the $85 million it agreed to pay in 2015 to settle a case brought by the Justice Department and the Department of Housing and Urban Development concerning the bank’s improper origination of federally insured residential mortgage loans during the housing bubble.

In 2013 Fifth Third paid $6.5 million to settle an SEC case concerning the improper accounting of commercial real estate loans in the midst of the financial crisis. It has also paid out more than $8 million in wage theft lawsuits.

If the allegations against Fifth Third hold up, bank regulators and federal prosecutors will also have to determine whether the scheme occurred at other financial institutions. Megabanks such as JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America have run up billions of dollars in fines and settlements for many different kinds of misconduct. We need to know whether the creation of sham accounts should be added to the list.

Cracking Down on Modern-Day Child Labor Abuses

When the Massachusetts Attorney General announced in January that Chipotle was being fined over $1 million for child labor violations, it was a jarring reminder that a practice usually associated with the sweatshops and coal mines of the early 20th century is still with us.

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 put restrictions on the employment of minors but did not abolish it entirely. Instead, it established minimum ages for various kinds of work and set restrictions on working hours.  States have child labor laws of their own.

Compliance with these rules was far from universal, but it appeared that the violators were mainly small businesses. The U.S. Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division did its best to investigate these abuses and imposed penalties that typically amounted to around $10,000 and involved a single location, even when it was an outlet or franchise of a much larger corporation.

Massachusetts AG Maura Healey is abandoning that approach and bringing broader actions that highlight the magnitude of the problem. The Chipotle case included $1.37 million in restitution and penalties for an estimated 13,253 child labor violations and other state wage-and-hour infractions at the company’s 50 corporate-owned locations in the state. As part of the settlement, Chipotle also agreed to pay $500,000 to help create a fund to be administered by the AG’s office to educate the public about child labor and to provide training opportunities for young people.

Healey’s investigators had found that Chipotle regularly employed minors without work permits, required 16- and 17-year-old employees to work later than the law allows, and in some instances had minors working beyond the nine-hour daily limit and the 48-hour weekly maximum.

Chipotle is not the only large company targeted by Healey. In February her office announced a $400,000 settlement with Wendy’s International covering an estimated 2,100 violations at its 46 corporate-owned restaurants in the state. The infractions were similar, such as having 16- and 17-year-olds working later than allowed and beyond the nine-hour daily limit.

Last year, the Massachusetts AG reached a $409,000 settlement with Qdoba Restaurant Corporation for the same kind of violations at its 22 corporate-owned locations.

The consequences of overworking minors are the same as they were was a century ago. Long hours on the job interfere with school work and can negatively impact the health of young people. Fast food outlets may not pose quite the same physical hazards as the factories and mines where children were once employed, but they are far from risk-free.

For instance, there have been many reports of sexual harassment of young workers at restaurant chains such as McDonald’s, sometimes on the part of managers. Such harassment is a problem for workers of all ages but is particularly serious when the victims are minors.

Low unemployment rates and labor shortages are making it more common for employers to turn to young workers to fill in the gaps. Yet we should make sure that these businesses do not break the rules when they do so. Other regulators should follow the lead of Massachusetts in getting tough with employers who exploit the most vulnerable workers.

Justice Deferred at Wells Fargo

In finally resolving its investigation of Wells Fargo for a brazen scheme to bilk customers through the creation of millions of sham fee-generating accounts, the Trump/Barr Justice Department employed some tough language but administered what amounted to a slap on the wrist.

DOJ issued a press release quoting Deputy Assistant Attorney General Michael Granston as saying that the settlement “holds Wells Fargo accountable for tolerating fraudulent conduct that is remarkable both for its duration and scope.” The release was accompanied by a 16-page summary of the bank’s abuses, including the adoption of “onerous sales goals and accompanying management pressure [that] led thousands of its employees to engage in: (1) unlawful conduct to attain sales through fraud, identity theft, and the falsification of bank records, and (2) unethical practices to sell products of no or low value to the customer, while believing that the customer did not actually need the account and was not going to use the account.”

The document states that senior Wells executives were well aware of the unlawful behavior yet continued to ratchet up the sales pressure on employees.

This recitation echoes the content of a 100-page notice issued earlier by Wells’ primary regulator, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. While the OCC imposed substantial financial penalties against several former executives of the bank, DOJ has not charged any individuals.

Justice imposed a $3 billion monetary penalty on Wells, which resolves criminal issues such as false bank records and identity theft as well as civil issues under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act and securities violations that may be brought by the SEC. That penalty is not insignificant but it will not be too much of a burden for a bank whose profits last year exceeded $19 billion.

Moreover, the impact of the criminal portion of the case was diminished by the inclusion of a deferred prosecution agreement rather than the filing of any actual charges. This overused gimmick (like its evil twin, the non-prosecution agreement) allows DOJ to give the impression it is being tough with corporate bad actors while actually failing to do so.

In its press release on the Wells case, DOJ tries to justify the use of the DPA by noting factors such as the bank’s cooperation with the investigation. Yet it also cites “prior settlements in a series of regulatory and civil actions.”

How are the bank’s prior bad acts, which according to Violation Tracker have resulted in more than $17 billion in penalties, an argument for leniency? If anything, they militate against the use of DPA, which was originally meant to provide an incentive for a company caught up in a single case of misconduct to return to the straight and narrow.

Wells Fargo, in fact, was the recipient, via its acquisition Wachovia, of a previous DPA in 2010 for anti-money-laundering deficiencies as well as a 2011 non-prosecution agreement in connection with municipal bond bid-rigging. Those deals do not appear to have much of a beneficial effect on the ethical climate at the bank.

Allowing Wells to once again evade true criminal responsibility is sending the wrong signal to a corporation whose conduct was so pernicious, both in cheating its customers and in coercing lower-level employees to participate in the massive fraud.

Behavior like this calls out for tougher penalties. In 2018 the Federal Reserve took a step in that direction by barring Wells from growing any larger until it cleaned up its business practices. The agency also announced that the bank had been pressured to replace four members of its board of directors.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department continues to rely on prosecutorial approaches that have done little to stem the ongoing wave of corporate criminality.

Bloomberg’s Wage Theft Problem

Michael Bloomberg was pummeled during the Democratic debate in Las Vegas over the treatment of women at his media and data company. Yet that is not the only blemish on the employment record of Bloomberg L.P. The company also has a serious problem with wage theft.

Violation Tracker lists a total of $70 million in penalties paid by Bloomberg for wage and hour violations, putting it in 32nd place among large corporations. Yet many of the companies higher on the list – such as Walmart, FedEx, and United Parcel Service – employ far more people than the roughly 20,000 at Bloomberg.

The bulk of Bloomberg’s penalty total comes from a 2018 collective action lawsuit in which it agreed to pay $54.5 million to resolve allegations that the company violated the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and state law in New York and California by failing to pay overtime to employees responsible for assisting customers using the proprietary software on Bloomberg financial data terminals.

The 2014 complaint in the case alleged that the employees were required to be at their desks before their shifts began, were required to use parts of their lunch hour to finish requests, and were required to work past the end of their shifts to finish jobs – all of which could cause them to work more than the 40 hours for which they were paid. Yet they received no additional compensation for the extra time, which the complaint said should have been paid at time-and-a-half.

For the next few years, Bloomberg’s lawyers fought the case both on substantive and procedural grounds, but they lost in their effort to prevent the certification of a class by the court. Whereas most employers who experience that setback agree to settle, Bloomberg wanted its day in court. The trial finally began in April 2018. After about a week of proceedings, the company apparently did not like the way things were going and entered settlement talks with the plaintiffs. A deal soon followed.

What makes the company’s aggressive posture in this case surprising is that it had previously settled four other wage and hour lawsuits for amounts ranging from $346,000 to $5.5 million.

Bloomberg’s wage theft litigation troubles expanded after the company had been cited twice for wage and hour violations by the U.S. Labor Department, paying a fine of $522,683 in 2011 and $547,683 in 2013.

In addition to all these cases, Bloomberg recently agreed to pay $3 million to settle another overtime lawsuit involving call center workers (the case is not yet in Violation Tracker).

Bloomberg is not the only tech company to have run afoul of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Google’s parent Alphabet, Intel, Apple, Adobe Systems, Microsoft, and Oracle are also high on the list of those companies that have paid the most in wage theft settlements and fines.

Yet Bloomberg LP is the only one on the list whose founder, majority owner and CEO is seeking to be the presidential nominee of a political party deeply concerned about the treatment of workers.

Meddling in Mergers

President Trump’s effort to influence the outcome of the prosecution of his buddy Roger Stone represents another threat to the rule of law in the United States. Yet it is not just the rule of criminal law that is endangered. The Trump Administration has also been meddling with civil law, particularly in the area of antitrust.

This has been going on for a while. Early in his administration, the Trump Justice Department sought to block AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner, mainly, it appears, because the president wanted to get back at Time Warner subsidiary CNN for its negative coverage of him. Even after a federal court ruled in favor of AT&T and allowed it to close the deal, DOJ continued its legal crusade. A year ago, some critics were arguing that Trump’s actions with regard to AT&T amounted to an impeachable offense.

Last year, DOJ did Trump’s bidding by opening an antitrust investigation of four automakers that had sided with California in a dispute over whether the state could maintain its stricter automobile emissions standards in the face of the administration’s move to ease those standards at the federal level. Recently, DOJ quietly dropped the probe after concluding that the companies had violated no laws—something that was clear from the beginning.

As with criminal cases, Trump is trying to use antitrust laws not only to harm his opponents but to reward his friends. Exhibit A here is the proposed merger of T-Mobile and Sprint. A federal judge has just ruled in favor of the deal, which will greatly reduce competition in a wireless industry that is already highly concentrated. One study found that it would also depress wages of workers at cellphone retail stores.

The case had been brought by attorneys general in 13 states and the District of Columbia concerned that the combination had received approval from the Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission.

Those approvals came amid reports over the past year that the merger was being strongly promoted by the White House. Trump is very chummy with Masayoshi Son, the chair of Sprint’s Japanese parent SoftBank, who has cultivated close ties with the president by making lavish promises of new investments in the U.S. that are unlikely to materialize. SoftBank, in fact, is in bad shape financially, due to setbacks relating to its stakes in companies such as We Work and Uber.

Meanwhile, T-Mobile also stoked the administration’s enthusiasm for the merger by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars at Trump’s DC hotel.

When Trump does not have a personal stake in the matter, he seems willing to large mergers proceed. He made some noises about the combination of aerospace giants Raytheon and United Technologies but then dropped the matter. The deal is expected to close in the next few months.

Other big combinations have also been succeeding. Last year alone, Bristol-Myers Squibb acquired Celgene; Occidental Petroleum bought Anadarko; Walt Disney took over a big chunk of Twenty-First Century Fox; and so on.

What we are left with are two problems. On the one hand, we have an administration that is largely willing to left corporate concentration continue unchecked. On the other hand, we have a president who is willing to selectively intervene in deals to help friends and harm foes.

Both practices are exactly the opposite of what is in the public interest. The antitrust laws should be applied rigorously to control corporate power, and a president should refrain from meddling in deals, especially when it’s done for personal political reasons. But that’s not the way it works in Trumpworld.

Bribery and Airbus

Given all the talk about the globalization of supply chains and other business activities, it is encouraging to see that international coordination can also occur when it comes to the investigation of corporate misconduct.

That is part of the story in the recent announcement that law enforcement agencies in the United States, Britain and France worked together to bring about a $4 billion settlement with Airbus to resolve allegations of bribery and export-control violations in its dealings with countries such as China, Malaysia and Ghana.

Unfortunately, cross-border cooperation can also result in the spread of undesirable practices. The Airbus deal included a deferred prosecution agreement offered by the UK’s Serious Fraud Office. Britain imported such arrangements from the United States, whose Justice Department also offered one to Airbus.

At least Britain has used DPAs sparingly – the Serious Fraud Office website lists half a dozen prior to Airbus, while the U.S. DOJ has handed out more than 200 of them, along with a roughly equal number of related non-prosecution agreements.

Part of the justification for these deals is that they will discourage corporations from repeating their offenses by holding out the possibility of an actual criminal prosecution should that occur. But Airbus is a company that already had a history of bribery.

A 2003 article in The Economist described this track record involving customers in countries such as Kuwait and India. In 2018 Airbus had to pay more than 80 million euros to resolve a bribery investigation conducted by the Munich Public Prosecutor relating to the sale of fighter aircraft to Austria. The new settlement with Airbus was the culmination of an investigation that lasted for years.

Bribery, in fact, has long been a pervasive problem in the aerospace industry, including U.S. players. Among the revelations that occurred during the Watergate investigation was the fact that companies such as Lockheed and Northrop frequently paid questionable payments to gain foreign contracts. The uproar over these payments, which also involved companies in other industries, helped bring about the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act—the key law used by U.S. prosecutors in their portion of the case against Airbus.

The FCPA has also been used against other foreign aerospace companies. These cases include an $800 million settlement with aircraft engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce that also involved prosecutors in the UK and Brazil; a $107 million settlement with Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer; and a $400 million settlement with Britain’s BAE Systems.

Bribery has been such a significant issue for Airbus that the company had planned to include a chapter on its scandals in a book it had commissioned to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary. Airbus executives apparently thought that publishing that unflattering content would highlight the company’s purported commitment to transparency and thus help it negotiate a more favorable deal in its negotiations with prosecutors. Airbus subsequently decided that the move might actually have the opposite effect, and it cancelled the publication of the book.

That may have been the wiser course of action. Airbus got the deferred prosecution agreements it was seeking and thereby protected its ability to bid on government contracts. The public, however, is left to wonder whether the company and its competitors will ever cease their corrupt practices.

The Belated Crackdown on Wells Fargo

It took three years but a leading federal bank regulator has finally gotten tough with probably the most lawless large financial institution in the country.

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, an arm of the Treasury Department, recently took action against the former chief executive of Wells Fargo in connection with the scandal in which the bank pressured employees to create bogus accounts that extracted millions of dollars in fees from unsuspecting customers.

Many observers were surprised that the OCC, not known for aggressive action, fined John Stumpf $17.5 million – the largest penalty it has ever imposed on an individual – and banned him for life from the banking industry. The agency also penalized two other former senior officials at Wells Fargo and charged five others. Among those five is Carrie Tolstedt, the former head of retail banking at Wells, against whom the OCC is seeking a penalty of $25 million, substantially more than what Stumpf agreed to pay.

OCC’s belated severity may have something to do with the fact that the agency’s posture toward Wells is the subject of a pending investigation by the Treasury inspector general. That inquiry will likely address the failure of the agency to pursue complaints it had received about abusive practices at Wells long before the sham-account scandal erupted in 2016. The agency admitted this lapse in an unflattering report about its conduct released in 2017.

Along with the announcement of its charges against Tolstedt and the others, the OCC released a 100-page Notice which reads like an indictment. It argues that for more than a decade the bank maintained a business model that pressured employees to engage in “serious misconduct” by imposing “intentionally unreasonable sales goals” and “fostered an atmosphere that perpetuated improper and illegal conduct.”

The document relates in detail how that pressure worked to the detriment both of the customers who were being defrauded and the bank’s lower level employees. Those employees were turned into accomplices in a corrupt scheme described by the document as “immense” in magnitude.

Also contained in the document are indications that Wells managers were seeking to cover up the wrongdoing. They pretended to monitor improper conduct by lower-level employees but were far from aggressive in that effort. The document notes that the bank’s Head of Corporate Investigations testified before the OCC that there was nearly a 100% chance an employee’s boss would know if she failed to meet her sales goals, but the chances were very small that an employee would be caught for issuing an unauthorized product or service. Those employees clearly got the message that if they wanted to keep their jobs they had to go along with the scheme.

Unfortunately, the document is part of a civil proceeding when it should really be part of a criminal case against Wells and those who were running it. The shocking misconduct outlined by the OCC belongs in an indictment brought under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

There are reports that the Justice Department is pursuing a criminal investigation of Wells, but it is hard to be confident that Bill Barr’s DOJ will do the right thing.