POLITICS

Wells Fargo Botched A Fraud Inquiry. An Innocent Man Landed In Court.

State and local governments continue to rely on a bank that keeps finding new ways to lose credibility.

Jeff Edwards comes across almost like a caricature of a mild-mannered Christian do-gooder. Since 1989, he’s been a pastor at the United Methodist Church of Parsippany, New Jersey, where he delivers sermons, teaches Bible study and directs Christmas plays for a congregation of about 200.

The church hosts a variety of community events, from weekly Alcoholics Anonymous and Magician’s Club meetings to a semi-regular Clowns’ Meeting ― which is not an insult, but a gathering for face-painted entertainers. His sermons, published on the church’s website, are a weekly homage to love, hope and community.

So it was a shock to everyone ― including Edwards ― when the New Jersey State Police posted his photograph as a wanted man last July, accusing him of cashing forged checks at the local Wells Fargo.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Edwards says. “I’ve banked there for as long as it’s been there. I’ve been a pastor in this town for almost 30 years.”

The photograph was just the beginning of the nightmare. As his bank repeatedly mishandled simple steps in a routine fraud inquiry, Edwards eventually found himself in court, charged with a felony and facing three to five years in prison.

The story of Edwards’ bizarre legal ordeal is a window into the ongoing administrative depravity at Wells Fargo, and the way government authorities ― from Trump-appointed federal regulators to blue-state technocratic functionaries ― can enable and even amplify the bank’s misconduct.

Over the past two and a half years, Wells Fargo has admitted to mistakenly foreclosing on hundreds of families, illegally repossessing more than 27,000 cars and fraudulently opening over 3 million accounts for people who never asked for them. The bank has undertaken at least four separate marketing campaigns aimed at improving its dreadful corporate image, issuing official apology after official apology for its litany of abuses. It has rolled out a new logo and a new brand tagline, and replaced its CEO twice since the fake account scandal started to make headlines.

The only thing Wells Fargo hasn’t changed is its pattern of screwing over its own customers. But for some reason, state governments continue to entrust everything from ordinary account management to the details of fraud investigations to this disastrous institution.

Jeff Edwards, a longtime Wells Fargo customer, found himself embroiled in a fraud inquiry that had nothing to do with him.
Jeff Edwards, a longtime Wells Fargo customer, found himself embroiled in a fraud inquiry that had nothing to do with him.

For Edwards, the madness began in April 2018, when the New Jersey Turnpike Authority noticed a problem with several checks the agency had written. Somehow the checks were being deposited not once but twice, with different dollar amounts each time. The immediate suspicion was check forgery ― someone, it seemed, had copied a stack of legitimate checks from the agency, scanned in a new name and new dollar amounts, and deposited the forgeries at a Wells Fargo branch in Parsippany.

According to documents from a lawsuit Edwards filed this year, a $216.08 check from the Turnpike Authority to the South Jersey Energy Company became a $1,450.13 check to a woman named Tyler Mathis. Three other forged checks landed in the same bank account after similar alterations.

State police quickly opened an investigation, subpoenaing Wells Fargo for information on the bogus transactions. They interviewed Mathis in July, who said a mysterious man she called “Cousin Swing” had offered to give her a cut of several checks he needed to deposit. She gave him her bank card, and the checks started rolling in, including the four checks from the New Jersey Transit Authority deposited at the Parsippany Wells Fargo on April 16.

The police decided not to charge Mathis, concluding she was a victim of the scheme, rather than a culprit. It’s common, in fact, for scammers to talk people into depositing checks on their behalf. Banks make money available to their customers immediately after a check is deposited, and it can take a few days for the transaction to be flagged as fraudulent. When that happens, whoever received the bogus funds has to pay everything back in full ― even if they’ve already handed over some of the money over to someone else, like the mysterious Cousin Swing.

This sort of thing happens all the time. According to the most recent Federal Reserve data, about $710 million worth of check fraud takes place every year. It’s so common that law enforcement typically doesn’t get involved, leaving banks to enforce the proper payment details on their own. State police likely took up the Edwards case only because the checks involved a state agency, the Turnpike Authority.

None of this should have been a problem for Edwards. He’d never met Mathis or Cousin Swing. But he had deposited four checks of his own on April 16, at the same Wells Fargo branch where Cousin Swing deposited the forgeries. And Wells Fargo seems to have screwed up the surveillance evidence it provided to the police, handing them images from the bank’s ATM of Edwards depositing his checks. Edwards didn’t fit the description Mathis had given police of Cousin Swing ― but police trusted the bank to have its records straight. Neither Wells Fargo nor the New Jersey State Police would comment for this story, citing ongoing litigation.

And so the same day police interviewed Mathis, they posted a photo of Edwards at the Wells Fargo ATM on the department’s Facebook page, accusing him of fraud and asking the public for any information on his whereabouts. The photo quickly circulated through local media and the Parsippany Methodist congregation. Edwards was mortified.

“I’m a pastor,” he says. “All I have is my reputation.”

Edwards had been going to the same bank branch for nearly three decades, remaining a customer as new corporate owners took over his account via a series of mergers. The bank became a Wells Fargo in 2008, when Wells took over the remains of Wachovia, which failed during the financial crisis. The church even kept its official accounts there. So Edwards knew there were bank records that would show that his deposits on April 16 were ordinary, legal transactions. He reached out to the police, sending Detective William Condron his bank statement and copies of the legitimate checks he’d deposited, explaining there had been a mistake.

Condron was skeptical, but he went back to Wells Fargo and asked the bank to make sure Edwards was the right guy. This should have been a red flag for both the bank and the police. Check fraud isn’t a super-sophisticated crime, but usually the perpetrators are smart enough to avoid using their own local bank. If the bank catches you engaging in fraud on camera, there’s a decent chance they’ll recognize you whenever you come back in. It was extremely unlikely that the person running the fraud scheme was a long-term customer who just happened to start sprinkling bogus checks in with his regular banking activity.

But the day after Condron asked Wells Fargo to double-check, the bank’s subpoena compliance team reported back that the man in the photo was definitely the guy who’d deposited the fake checks. When the police asked for additional evidence, Wells Fargo again sent them surveillance photos of Edwards making his deposits at the ATM ― this time with the numbers of the fraudulent checks handwritten across the images.

Edwards didn’t hear back from the police for a while. A little over a week after he first reached out to them, he called Condron again to follow up. Edwards says Condron told him he was getting bounced “from department to department” by the bank. He was dealing with people deep in the Wells Fargo bureaucracy ― the subpoena compliance team and someone from a “research unit,” at least one of whom, the detective said, was in Arizona.

So Edwards went down to his local branch, hoping to put everything to rest with the bank itself. The branch manager had never heard of his case, but promised to bring it up with her bosses. When he checked back a few days later, Edwards was told it was now in the hands of the bank’s “resolutions” team ― at least the third internal department at Wells Fargo to touch the debacle.

During the radio silence from the police, according to Edwards’ lawsuit, a new wrinkle opened in the case. Wells Fargo sent over an ATM photograph of a man who appeared to have deposited a fifth forged check into Mathis’ account, this time from a Wells Fargo branch in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. The man in the photograph looked nothing like Edwards.

Edwards didn’t learn about the other photograph and the other forged check until months later, when his case went to trial. On Sept. 4, the police called Edwards and asked him to come down to their headquarters ― more than an hour’s drive from where he lived ― to clear everything up. When Edwards arrived the next day, he was taken to an interrogation room and berated. Police showed him the ATM photos with the forged check numbers scrawled across them, saying these images proved he was guilty of a crime. He’d better confess if he knew what was good for him.

“Suppose this goes to trial and we get the Wells Fargo technology expert on the stand and he says you did it,” one officer said, according to Edwards. “Who do you think they’ll believe?”

When Edwards wouldn’t confess, he was fingerprinted and charged with third-degree forgery, a felony punishable by three to five years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000.

After he was charged, Edwards called Wells Fargo yet again. This time, he was told the bank had “closed” the inquiry into the Mathis account. The ATM that had taken Edwards’ photograph didn’t keep detailed date-and-time records after two weeks. The bank couldn’t provide evidence to clear his name.

I'm a pastor. All I have is my reputation. Jeff Edwards

As miscarriages of justice go, Edwards ultimately got off pretty easy. A judge dismissed his case in January 2019, citing the prosecution’s lack of evidence. But the fact that it could have been worse doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in either the New Jersey State Police or Wells Fargo. The case against Edwards was a joke, and police tried to pressure him to confess anyway, before wasting the state’s time and money on a frivolous trial.

The New Jersey State Police bear the ultimate responsibility for the mess. Criminal charges are brought by law enforcement, not financial institutions. But at any point during the four-month police inquiry, a simple phone call from just one person at Wells Fargo could have ended the entire debacle. Even with at least three different departments on the case, the bank was simply administratively incapable of fixing the problem it created by sending police the wrong photo last April.

People make mistakes, and I’m OK with that,” Edwards says. He is, after all, in the forgiveness business. “But when Wells Fargo was asked to check this and realized they had no basis for their original determination... they didn’t change their original determination. And that was the one and only piece of evidence on which the state police arrested me.”

Edwards is now suing both the state police and Wells Fargo for “false arrest, malicious prosecution and humiliation of an innocent man.” He’s quick to emphasize that plenty of other people have suffered much graver indignities at the hands of the American criminal justice system than he has. But he still thinks his case reveals something frightening.

“I have the resources to hire a good lawyer and I have never been arrested, and I felt a lot of pressure,” Edwards told HuffPost. “Somebody without my advantages could well have been pressured into taking a plea bargain, even in their innocence.”

Edwards’ case involves a tremendous amount of misplaced credibility. Wells Fargo is a recidivist institution. It has admitted to defrauding people by the thousands, repeatedly, over the past two years. Nobody at the bank has been prosecuted for any of the infractions. Recently ousted CEO Tim Sloan made $18.4 million last year, $17.4 million the year before that and over $60.4 million at the bank before the fake account scandal broke.

And yet when Wells Fargo casually, falsely identifies someone as a criminal, the police not only take them seriously, they’ll ignore mountains of evidence to the contrary. If the bank says it’s true, it must be. Perhaps most frightening of all? Most of the time, police aren’t even involved in these fraud cases. The bank is handling them by itself.

The federal government could do something about this. Federal regulators have the authority to break up a bank into smaller institutions that someone might be able to manage competently. And prosecutors have the authority to bring criminal charges against bank executives who oversee fraudulent enterprises.

But neither the Trump nor the Obama administrations have expressed much interest in white-collar crime prosecutions at big banks. The standard solution for a bank like Wells Fargo is to slap it with a fine and move on. Those fines are becoming an ordinary cost of doing business. Last year, the bank posted a $22.4 billion profit.

And state governments aren’t doing much better. In February, California State Treasurer Fiona Ma ― an elected Democrat ― quietly lifted the sanctions her predecessor had imposed, which had prohibited Wells Fargo from underwriting any bond issues by the state and barred the state from buying Wells Fargo’s corporate bonds. Ma’s deputy Tim Schaefer defended the bank in a statement to the newspaper American Banker: “Wells Fargo has made clear public steps that its rehabilitation is underway and has made significant progress.”

The Parsippany United Methodist Church has closed all of its accounts with Wells Fargo, but Edwards is still a customer at the bank. He says it’s the only way he’ll ever get an apology.

He’s still waiting.

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