Joe Paul Gonzalez, a man with many job titles, including auditor, could not be blamed for what some might describe as a deer-in-the-headlights moment as he stood before the county board of supervisors Oct. 25. He was there to make what should have been a straight-forward request for them to approve the WellsOne Commercial Card agreement between the county and Wells Fargo Bank.
Instead, the board seemed to be hearing the news for the first time that the county was partnering with the now notorious Wells Fargo to convert its banking services from Bank of America in order to streamline the county’s procurement and accounts payable services, and were asking him to hit the pause button and consider other banking options.
In fact, Gonzalez has been working for quite some time on the arrangement to switch banks and incorporate Wells Fargo’s WellsOne Commercial Card to make payments to existing and future county vendors that already accept the commercial card to satisfy payments of goods and services. Additionally, the card can be used for travel related expenditure payments for lodging and transportation.
Somehow, it seemed to have escaped the board’s attention that on Sept. 9, 2016, Wells Fargo was fined $185 million for opening thousands of customer accounts without their permission and the bank subsequently fired 5,300 of its employees for a supposed conspiracy.
During his presentation, Gonzalez explained how Wells Fargo had conducted a study to determine there were enough vendors in the county that accept such cards to create sufficient revenue over the next few years to support the program. He said the reason the county should partner with Wells Fargo was to get out of the check writing business and switch to an electronic system that would make it easier to track checks. He said eventually the use of the card would become a revenue-generating center.
Then resident Marty Richman upset the momentum of the presentation by bringing up Wells Fargo’s checkered past of opening those thousands of bogus accounts and “essentially stealing from those accounts.”
“If you’ve been following this story in the newspapers they’ve admitted to a new scam, which was to force people taking automobile loans to take out insurance with them at extremely excessive costs,” he said. “They’ve done everything but walk into your house and put a gun to your head and taken your wallet. Obviously, there was no penalty for that, just come on to who’s the next guy in line. Well, it looks like we’re the next guy in line.”
Richman said Wells Fargo’s reputation isn’t worth a nickel and they’re not to be trusted because they cheated the most vulnerable people in society, those who don’t have the power to protect themselves.
“I don’t know if there are any other options, but if there are, I’m willing to hold Wells Fargo accountable for their felonious actions against the people who use their services,” he said. “I’m not a big-time social activist, but when the banks steal money from you and get caught at it and the only penalty is to say ‘let’s see if you can catch me as I steal money from another program,’ that’s no way to do business. I object to doing business with Wells Fargo on that basis.”
Elia Salinas agreed with Richman and added, “I am very uncomfortable giving Wells Fargo total control. Everything is electronic and we know from current history nothing is invulnerable from being hacked. I prefer not to give total control to a bank.”
Supervisor Robert Rivas related how when he first became a supervisor he took his money out of Wells Fargo and deposited into the Santa Clara County Credit Union. He wondered how Wells Fargo was chosen and Gonzalez told him it was through the RFP process. Rivas asked if any other banks had applied. Gonzalez said Chase and Union banks had offered their services, but the treasurer selected Wells Fargo because it had the most experience at delivering commercial service.
Supervisor Jerry Muenzer posed the scenario that the county treasurer made the decision to switch from Bank of America to Wells Fargo. Gonzales said he was correct.
“I just wanted to make it clear that this board did not make that decision,” Muenzer said. “Because we have our account at Wells Fargo, is that why we are going with this credit card? Or can we get the services of a credit card somewhere else?”
Gonzalez told Muenzer the card was part of the RFP offering from Wells Fargo. Then he told the board if they wished it, he could pursue other options. Muenzer asked him if the county had such a card at Bank of America. Gonzalez said they did not and that it was a new program to facilitate paying vendors who already use the WellsOne card. Muenzer said he would like to see other options.
Board Chair Jaime De La Cruz asked if there were a timeline for implementing the program. Gonzalez said there was not, but meanwhile the county would continue to operate inefficiently because of having to write checks.
Supervisor Mark Medina thanked Richman and Salinas for voicing their concerns and said the county needs to send a message to Wells Fargo and other banks that “there has to be ethics in business” and that he did not want to work with Wells Fargo. De La Cruz told Gonzalez that it did not look like the board wanted to move forward on the resolution and asked him if he wanted to return at a later date with another proposal.
“There’s no urgency to go forward with this, but there was an RFP process and I didn’t look at other options to do the same thing,” Gonzalez said candidly.
Supervisor Anthony Botelho said when he first glanced at the agenda materials prior to the meeting that he thought it was about a credit card to be used for small purchases, but realized it was much more. Gonzalez said it would be a major change for the way the county conducted business. Botelho described himself as “an old-school kind of guy” who likes to take care of his own business rather than “farm it out.” Gonzalez reminded Botelho the world worked through electronic transactions.
“The real issue here is this bank,” Gonzalez said. “This is the county’s bank and it’s a fundamental question we’re faced with.”
Rivas suggested an ad hoc committee be formed to study the process to report back at a future meeting. De La Cruz asked Mary Lou Andrade, county treasurer, to come up to the podium and perhaps explain what happened. She said it was the treasurer’s responsibility to select a bank and she did so through the RFP process.
“We were already in contract when the fallout happened with Wells Fargo,” she said. “It was pretty difficult to go back and try to resurrect the RFP and start all over. It’s a very complex and we couldn’t just go back on the contract.”
When De La Cruz asked, “what’s the pleasure of the board?” Muenzer said he agreed with Rivas’ suggestion to appoint a committee to study the specifics and work with Gonzalez to bring the issue back at a later date. De La Cruz asked for volunteers. Supervisors Medina and Botelho were nominated.
Shelby O’Neil, founder of Jr. Ocean Guardians made a presentation to the board of supervisors hoping they will declare November as “no straw November” to raise awareness of plastic pollution, particularly through single-use straws, in the marine and coastal environments.