Parkland parent says Wells Fargo’s conduct on guns and marijuana is dishonest

Fred Guttenberg
Fred Guttenberg Miami Herald

Fred Guttenberg wasn’t happy with Wells Fargo’s decision to keep banking with the gun industry after the Parkland shooting, in which his daughter Jaime was one of the 17 people killed, but he was willing to continue talking when the bank’s CEO told him they wanted to remain politically neutral.

Then came the bank’s decision to shut down Florida Agriculture Commissioner candidate Nikki Fried’s campaign account due to the financial support she received from the medical marijuana industry.

Guttenberg, angrier still with what he perceived as the bank’s hypocritical stance, emailed Wells Fargo CEO Tim Sloan asking him to reconsider their gun policy now that they waded into marijuana politics.

He didn’t get a response.

And the final straw came Monday night, when CNN reported that Bloomberg News reassigned a reporter who covered Wells Fargo after the banking giant complained about the reporter’s coverage of Wells Fargo’s ties to the gun industry.

“I think people ought to move their accounts. We’ve seen what Wells Fargo will do to consumers in the past and now we see what they do to those who disagree with them,” Guttenberg said in an interview. “I could have gone public multiple times. When I read today that they’re actually seeking to punish people for covering their bad behavior when it comes to guns, now I’m going to go public because I’m angry.”

Guttenberg, a vocal proponent of increased gun control measures who is working to elect lawmakers who agree with him on the issue, said the Wells Fargo CEO’s behavior is different than others he’s confronted in public, like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

“Senator Rubio, he and I have had many private conversations because maybe one day we’ll try to come together,” Guttenberg said. “It became a problem to me when it became clear [Wells Fargo was] lying. I went public when they actually took action against someone.”

In a statement, Wells Fargo expressed sympathy for Guttenberg.

“Wells Fargo has the utmost sympathy for Mr. Guttenberg and his family’s tragic loss. We also respect him for his advocacy on the important issue of public safety and we appreciate the dialogue on this topic,” Wells Fargo spokesperson Jennifer Dunn said in an email. “Wells Fargo wants schools and communities to be safe from gun violence, but changes to laws and regulations should be determined through a legislative process that gives the American public an opportunity to participate.”

Guttenberg said his communication with Wells Fargo began in April, when he emailed Sloan directly. At the time, Guttenberg said the bank had no interest in changing its policies with regards to providing banking services for the gun industry but was going to try to find other ways to provide support for his cause.

After a while the bank stopped responding.

“I kind of moved on,” Guttenberg said. “I’m a believer in highlighting good examples of businesses. I never went public with it at the time.”

But when Fried’s story became public, Guttenberg reached out to Sloan again. He was told the bank wasn’t changing its policies on guns, but would look to do “something philanthropic” on school safety. Guttenberg then followed up to ask if Wells Fargo would consider a policy change.

Sloan “said he was going to get back to me and then he never did. I have all the emails,” Guttenberg said. “That was between us, and I didn’t say a thing until I read the report about them punishing reporters.”

On Monday, CNN reported that the story which sparked Wells Fargo’s ire was a Bloomberg report from March titled “Wells Fargo is the go-to bank for gunmakers and the NRA.

The lead reporter on that story was later reassigned to cover the Trump Organization, according to CNN.

On Tuesday, Fried criticized the bank’s decision to complain about coverage related to guns while “getting involved in politics” on the marijuana issue, though Wells Fargo says it canceled her campaign account over a desire not to run afoul of federal marijuana laws.

“I used to practice law, so I saw firsthand how they defrauded millions of people across the country and targeted certain minorities in selling those mortgages they knew they couldn’t afford,” Fried said. “Their behavior just continues. People put their trust, their life savings into an institution where they are supposed to trust them. When we say things are too big to fail maybe in this circumstance they should fail.”

Wells Fargo argued that the decision to close Fried’s account is not an indication that they have taken a position on the issue.

“While we recognize that resolving the differences between federal and state laws on this matter has become an industry problem, we make these decisions based on the requirements of federal law and not because of any political view on the topic,” Wells Fargo spokesperson Bridget Baxton said in a statement.

Fried is on the ballot in Tuesday’s Democratic primary election for Florida Agriculture Commissioner, a statewide position.

In 2016, 71 percent of Florida voters approved of medical marijuana. If elected, Fried would oversee the state’s banking industry.

Wells Fargo faced a major scandal earlier this year after it agreed to a $480 million settlement for creating fake accounts at its banks across the country. The bank operates 602 branches and 1,179 ATMs throughout Florida.

“I would suspect after I’ve gone public that Wells Fargo is not going to go out of their way to change policy,” Guttenberg said. “Honestly, if they said to me they’re changing their ways, nothing would make me happier. I’m not counting on it, so I have to judge them on what they’ve done. They were dishonest and what they did was they took it to another level by trying to seek retribution against the reporters who cover it.”

Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau reporter Emily Mahoney contributed to this report.

Alex Daugherty, 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty