-- Fourteen senators have written to Attorney General Loretta Lynch urging her to “thoroughly investigate the culpability of senior executives” at Wells Fargo, as part of the Department of Justice’s investigation into an unauthorized accounts scandal that has engulfed the bank.
The letter, which was obtained and reviewed by ABC News, suggests that the investigation of senior executives is needed in order to reassure Americans that wealthy corporate leaders can not “purchase a higher class of justice for themselves.”
As ABC News and others reported last month, the FBI and federal prosecutors in New York and California opened an investigation into Wells Fargo shortly after the allegations first surfaced in early September, when the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and other regulators fined the bank a combined $185 million. At the time, the CFPB said that bank “employees opened more than two million deposit and credit card accounts that may not have been authorized by consumers.”
In financial filings, Wells Fargo confirmed that an investigation by the DOJ and others was underway. Separately, it has said it regrets and takes responsibility for “instances where customers may have received a product that they did not request.”
Since then, criticism of the bank has been intense and sustained, with CEO John Stumpf testifying and being lambasted in hearings hosted by committees in both chambers of Congress. The condemnation has been from both Republicans and Democrats.
"Mr. Stumpf testified under oath that he became aware of employees creating fraudulent bank accounts in 2013," the letter states. "Yet for years thereafter, Mr. Stumpf did not disclose that information to investors and did not take decisive action to crack down on the incentives that encouraged that behavior."
In his Senate hearing, Stumpf acknowledged, “We should have done more sooner to eliminate unethical conduct or incentives that may have unintentionally encouraged that conduct.”
The bank has since ended its sales goals program, which regulators and members of Congress have alleged motivated employees to engage in the alleged misconduct.
In their letter, the senators -- 12 Democrats and two independents -- urged the investigation of Wells Fargo’s top brass in light of what they said was frustration and skepticism with the justice system after the 2008 financial crisis.
“Following the 2008 financial crisis, the American people watched as senior executives repeatedly escaped accountability for actions that nearly brought down the global economy,” the letter reads. “No top Wall Street executives went to prison or even faced prosecution.”
The senators added: “Instead, the government regularly settled for a penalty that was borne by the bank’s shareholders, not its executives.”
In their letter, the senators made the case that low-level employees would be treated more harshly than their corporate bosses.
“A bank teller that takes a handful of bills from the cash drawer is likely to face charges for theft and prison time. He or she can’t hide behind an army of lawyers and corporate policies that diffuse accountability for those at the top,” they wrote.
The senators added: “Every time the Department of Justice settles a case of corporate fraud without holding individuals accountable, it reinforces the notion that the wealthy and powerful have purchased a higher class of justice for themselves.”
Spokespersons for Wells Fargo did not immediately respond to ABC News’ request for comment on the letter.
The letter was signed by Sens. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii; Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts; Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin; Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut; Dick Durbin, D-Illinois; Al Franken, D-Minnesota; Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York; Angus King, I-Maine; Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont; Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts; Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon; Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont; Ron Wyden, D-Oregon; and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota.
ABC News’ Josh Margolin contributed reporting.