Protesters target Wells Fargo shareholder meeting in Utah
By Paul Beebe
and Steven Oberbeck
The Salt Lake Tribune
First published Apr 23 2013 08:31AM
For the first time in about 15 years, banking giant Wells Fargo held its shareholders meeting away from its headquarter city of San Francisco, gathering Tuesday under a heavy security presence at The Grand America Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City.
At least two dozen protesters, some carrying signs criticizing bank mortgage policies, marched peacefully outside the hotel under the watch of about a half-dozen police officers, but it was a far different scene than last year’s mass demonstration in San Francisco. Inside, about half-a-dozen people were escorted out of the meeting at one point after directing heatedquestions at CEO John Stumpf about the bank’s loan modification improprieties and its high-interest lending that disproportionately affect black, Latino and low-income mortgage borrowers.
On the agenda for the one-hour-and-15-minute meeting before about 200 people were three shareholder proposals.
The most controversial asked shareholders to request an independent review of the bank’s internal controls over its mortgage servicing and foreclosure practices. The Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project, a New York-based group, and Reinvestment Partners, a North Carolina advocate of lending reform, questioned whether Wells is complying with federal fair housing and fair lending laws. It failed, with only 21 percent of the vote in favor.
However, there were numerous questions and comments that arose out of the proposal. Many centered around the bank’s efforts to treat struggling homeowners fairly. At one point, several in the audience stood up and started yelling comments at Stumpf. Security guards hustled them from the meeting as a chant arose, "Racist lending is a crime. John Stumpf should be doing time." No arrests were made.
Those attending the meeting were met by metal detectors, handheld security wands and more than a dozen police and other officers. One accompanied a bomb-sniffing dog.
Salt Lake City police spokesman Mike Hamideh said no threats had been received, and he added that the beefed-up police presence was not related to increased law enforcement vigilance at public events in the wake of the Boston Marathon terror bombings last week.
"This is more what we call ‘principle based.’ That means whenever we have such an event, we want to be prepared for the crowds," he said.
The bank says it likes to rotate meetings among cities where it has key operations. The bank’s critics say it’s just trying to avoid the wrath of protesters.
Wells Fargo also pointed out that it’s been doing business in Salt Lake City since the 1850s and the days of stagecoaches. It says it has nearly 4,000 employees in Utah, or 1.5 percent of its total, and called the capital city a great venue.
"Wells Fargo was pleased that we were able to conduct a safe and orderly meeting that allowed all participants to share their points of view," said bank spokesman Oscar Suris. "As far as we were concerned, we were absolutely fine with the views that were brought to our attention today. That’s what meetings are for."
Some of the demonstrators Tuesday, representing groups such United for Social Justice and the Colorado Student Power Alliance, charged that Wells Fargo was looking for a more conservative place to hold its meeting and found it in Salt Lake City.
Two previous annual meetings had been rowdy affairs. In 2011, and again last year, hundreds of demonstrators upset with the bank’s foreclosure and lending practices attempted to crash the normally staid meetings.
In 2011, protesters charged that Wells Fargo had agreed to modify only a small percentage of mortgages that qualified for the federal government’s Home Affordable Modification Program that helps struggling homeowners keep their homes.
Last year, several protesters made it into the meeting to demand that Wells Fargo stop foreclosures, end high-interest payday lending and forgive debts of borrowers with underwater mortgages. Eight demonstrators were arrested.
In Salt Lake City Tuesday, one protester wrote in yellow chalk on the sidewalk in front of the hotel on Main Street, "Now they foreclose on the same people who gave them the bailout."
Monica Kenney, 35, an unemployed welder representing the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, helped lead the protest outside after traveling from San Francisco.
"Wells Fargo is guilty of predatory lending and illegal foreclosures that have allowed it to steal the homes of hardworking people," she said. "We think Wells Fargo customers should pull their money out of the bank and put it in a credit union."
She then led the protesters in a chant, "One, two, three, four, student loans are class war! Five, six, seven, eight, students will retaliate!" Kenney accused Wells Fargo of engaging in predatory lending to students "that is designed to keep them in debt slavery. Students who are graduating with loans from Wells Fargo have a vampire hanging off their necks. Wells Fargo is not interested at all with helping them move on with their lives."
At the meeting, the other proposals before shareholders included one from Gerald Armstrong, who urged approval of a proposal to establish an independent chairman of the board, a title CEO Stumpf already holds. Armstrong, who lives in Denver, argued that the roles of chairman and CEO should be split to ensure a balance of power and authority on Wells’ board of directors. It failed.
Another proposal by Colorado Springs, Colo.-based First Affirmative Financial Network asked Wells to provide a report on its lobbying policies and practices. It was withdrawn before a vote.
As the meeting adjourned, protesters from inside gathered with those outside and marched up Main Street to several downtown Wells Fargo locations, leaving chalk messages on the sidewalks outside the bank’s facilities. They were followed on their route by five Salt Lake City police officers, but there were no confrontations.
The last time Wells Fargo held its annual shareholders meeting outside its hometown of San Francisco was in 1998, when it was staged in Los Angeles. Next year’s meeting location hasn’t been announced.
Tribune reporter Bob Mims and The Associated Press, contributed to this story