Wells Fargo’s annual shareholders meeting started off peacefully Tuesday, until Bruce Marks spotted his moment.
Marks stood up to interrupt the meeting about half an hour in, yelling that board members individually should explain “what they knew” about the San Francisco-based bank’s sales scandal “and when they knew it.” His outburst, which immediately followed the roll call of all 15 board members in the room, led nine minutes later to security guards dragging him out the meeting held in a Florida hotel.
For Marks, CEO of a Boston nonprofit that helps homeowners struggling to make mortgage payments, it was his latest confrontation with a large U.S. bank. As head of Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, which he founded in the 1980s and has Charlotte offices, Marks has long been known as a flamethrower toward financial firms.
Over the years, the 61-year-old has taken on banks when, for example, he’s felt they weren’t lending enough to minority communities. During the financial crisis, NACA once scattered furniture on the lawn of a mortgage investor in Connecticut to protest the loss of homes to foreclosure. NACA also once attempted “an amphibious assault” with rafts on a waterfront home of JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon during the crisis.
Retired Bank of America chief executive Hugh McColl Jr. was the first major banker to team up with Marks after a famously rocky meeting in 1995. Marks, a critic of “financial predators,” told McColl that all bankers were evil, and the CEO retorted that nonprofits like his wanted handouts without accountability.
Despite its criticism, NACA has teamed up with other bankers over the years. NACA has originated loans funded by large banks, and the group is paid by banks, including Wells Fargo, when the nonprofit helps borrowers modify their mortgages to make them more affordable, Marks said.
“But the fact of the matter is that doesn’t prevent us from taking on any bank’s predatory practices,” Marks said in an interview with the Observer Wednesday. “We have never had a golden handcuff where we are prevented from standing up for working people.”
Marks had been kicked out of public meetings before the Wells Fargo episode. Others include Ford Motor, JPMorgan and First Union – the Charlotte bank that later became Wachovia and then Wells Fargo.
“We’ve been doing this for a long time,” said Marks, a self-described product of the 1970s who was raised in a middle-class family just outside New York City by a salesman father and a mother who ran a small business.
“I grew up around people who had a lot of opportunity, and I interacted with a lot of people who did not have those same opportunities,” he said.
Marks said his Wells’ disruption followed months of preparing a response to allegations the bank’s employees for years opened customer accounts without authorization to meet aggressive sales goals. Authorities fined Wells Fargo $185 million in September over that activity.
About a dozen NACA members were at the meeting, Marks said.
“What I was requesting, what we were requesting, was to hear from the directors themselves ... why they should remain on the board,” Marks said Wednesday. “And what we saw was that the directors are not independent and they are just a mouthpiece for (CEO) Tim Sloan and the executives.”
Marks said he interrupted the meeting because the agenda did not include an opportunity to speak with the board members about their oversight of Wells during the scandal – “So we created the opportunity to question the board.”
“We don’t take no for an answer. We are the junkyard dogs,” Marks said.
Sloan and Chairman Stephen Sanger told Marks multiple times to sit down. At one point, Sloan told Marks: “Do not be disrespectful to this board of directors.” Some audience members booed as Marks refused to comply.
Security guards who had encircled Marks later dragged him out by the arms, and the meeting went into recess. Marks said guards put him in a police car, and he was issued a citation for trespassing and told he could never return to the hotel. Later, two other NACA members also disrupted the event and were removed.
Wells Fargo spokesman Oscar Suris said Wednesday the bank gave Marks “every opportunity to be a participant in the meeting according to the rules of the meeting. And he refuse to accept that opportunity.”
“He made every attempt to dictate his own rules for the meeting, and that wasn’t acceptable to the meeting’s participants,” Suris said. “We did our very best to address the situation in the best manner possible by taking the recess and asking him to leave.”
Marks said he’s now working on a project, the Wells Fargo Justice Campaign, launched this week, to continue to hold the bank accountable for the scandal. NACA said the campaign includes efforts to get the nonprofit’s hundreds of thousands of members who have more than $17 billion in Wells Fargo accounts and loans to divest.
Does he think his disruption at Wells’ meeting will make a difference?
“Absolutely, because it highlighted just how out of touch the executives and the board of directors are to their customers and to the community,” Marks said. “It’s putting additional pressure to replace that board with people who are more in line with the needs of the customers and the communities that Wells Fargo serves.”