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Congress must hold additional hearings to investigate whether Wells Fargo deliberately misled federal lawmakers during an active investigation, said 33 groups led by Public Citizen and Americans for Financial Reform in a letter (PDF) sent today to the U.S. Senate Banking Committee and the U.S. House Financial Services Committee. The groups suggest Wells Fargo executives, including former CEO John Stumpf, may have knowingly and deliberately withheld information related to its fraudulent insurance sales practices during congressional hearings held in September 2016.
According to the bank's own timeline, Wells Fargo learned in July 2016 that more than 800,000 customers had been charged for auto insurance they did not need, and the bank ended the activity around the same time that Stumpf testified before the two banking committees about Wells Fargo's fraudulent accounts scandal. Yet Stumpf's testimony made no mention of this misconduct, even when he was asked directly whether fraudulent activity might exist in other business lines. The bank later reiterated this denial in written responses to questions from members of Congress.
Withholding relevant information from a congressional inquiry is a criminal offense, punishable by up to five years in prison. The letter calls on the two committees to hold further hearings to investigate Wells Fargo's newly disclosed abuses and whether the bank lied to Congress.
"Wells Fargo had several opportunities to disclose its fraudulent insurance practices to Congress and chose not to - including in response to direct questions by Members on the two separate occasions," the letter to the committees reads. "The information on additional abuses that has become public since the earlier hearings makes a strong case for further investigation and additional hearings by your Committees. It also suggests that the bank may have misled your Committees in previous testimony and withheld relevant information in responses to members' questions for the record."
"Wells Fargo has long forced defrauded consumers into arbitration to hide its misconduct from public view, but lying to Congress would cross a new line," said Amanda Werner, arbitration campaign manager for Public Citizen and Americans for Financial Reform. "Having just admitted to nearly twice as many fake accounts as previously reported, Wells Fargo has a lot to answer for."
"Wells Fargo has spent tens of millions on campaign contributions and lobbying Congress," said Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs for Public Citizen. "If the House and Senate banking committees refuse to investigate Wells Fargo after these latest revelations, it will be a clear indication that Congress is siding with big banks instead of their victims."
"Wells Fargo used forced arbitration clauses and class-action bans to hide abuses and prevent its customers from securing justice or even realizing that problems the bank causes them are widespread," said Lisa Donner, executive director of Americans for Financial Reform. "It now appears that they have also tried to hide the breadth of problems inside the bank, even in the face of direct questions from members of Congress. Leaders of the relevant committees should be demanding answers and further hearings to get them."
Public Citizen is a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization that champions the public interest in the halls of power. We defend democracy, resist corporate power and work to ensure that government works for the people - not for big corporations. Founded in 1971, we now have 500,000 members and supporters throughout the country.(202) 588-1000
"The utility industry's custom of shutting off power punishes people for being poor," said the authors of a new report.
Energy justice campaigners on Monday called for "a permanent ban" on energy shutoffs by utilities as they released a report showing that major power companies have shut off millions of struggling customers' electricity and heat due to missed payments—while raking in record profits and spending billions of dollars on executive compensation, shareholder dividends, and stock buybacks.
"The utility industry's custom of shutting off power punishes people for being poor," reads a new report by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the Energy and Policy Institute, and BailoutWatch. "This barbaric practice—and related punitive measures, like resale of debt to predatory private companies—must end."
The authors of the report, titled Powerless in the United States, analyzed shutoff data from 30 states between January and October 2022, finding that utilities cut power to households more than 1.5 million times. Based on the rate of shutoffs recorded, 4.2 million households suffered utility shutoffs across the country in the first 10 months of 2022.
Combined with data gathered in the groups' earlier energy justice reports, they found "a staggering 5.7 million electricity shutoffs against U.S. households from January 2020 through October 2022."
\u201cNEW RELEASE: Utilities shutoff power to families over 5.7 million times since 2020 while raking in billions. #NoShutoffs\nRead our new report @CenterforBioDiv @EnergyandPolicy @bailoutwatchorg: https://t.co/oS4Rc5cZ28\u201d— Jean Su \u8607\u5b89\u541b (@Jean Su \u8607\u5b89\u541b) 1675088291
The vast majority of shutoffs between 2020 and 2022 were perpetrated by just a dozen companies, the groups said, including NextEra Energy Inc., Duke Energy Corporation, Exelon Corporation, FirstEnergy Corporation, and Ameren Corporation.
The 12 "Hall of Shame corporations," as the report calls them, were on average less profitable than other utilities profiled in the report, but were still "prone to rewarding executives with lavish pay." They were behind 37% of the dividends paid out to shareholders and 32% of disclosed CEO pay between 2019 and 2021.
They collectively paid their top 70 executives $1.2 billion—about $5.9 million per executive each year.
On average the 12 worst-offending companies spent about $4 billion on dividends each, but the customer debt they were owed by households struggling to pay accounted for about 1% of that amount.
"These 12 companies could have forgiven all 4.9 million documented shutoffs 90 times over using their dividends from 2020 through the third quarter of 2022."
"These 12 companies could have forgiven all 4.9 million documented shutoffs 90 times over using their dividends from 2020 through the third quarter of 2022," reads the report.
Selah Goodson Bell, an energy justice campaigner with CBD who co-authored the study, toldThe Guardian that the research shows how "a small scrape of the amount of money that utilities are shelling out to shareholders... could really change lives in millions of households."
FirstEnergy, which serves customers in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, shut off power nearly 240,000 times between 2020 and October 2022, punishing households for their inability to pay bills totaling about $25 million. Meanwhile, the company was able to afford spending $2.3 billion on dividends for its shareholders.
Similarly, Duke Energy cut power more than 600,000 times over that period. Customers owed them about $63 million, while shareholders were lavished with $8.3 billion.
As utility companies have enjoyed record profits, rising fossil fuel prices have driven inflation and have resulted in higher heating and electricity bills as household budgets have been stretched thin. Extreme weather like the winter storm that plunged millions of Texans into darkness in 2021 and the deadly heat wave in the Pacific Northwest that same year could also increase "energy insecurity among poor households and communities of color, which are 'less able to prepare for, respond to, and recover
from disaster events,'" the report reads.
"Heating a house with fossil gas this winter is expected to cost 66% more than it did two years ago," reads the report. "Electricity prices have also risen approximately 12% compared to 2020. The average family could pay more than $1,200 to heat their home this winter—$175 more than last winter and $300 more than the 2020 winter."
As households continue to struggle to afford necessities, utilities' punitive shutoffs and rewards for executives and investors show no sign of slowing down, according to the report. Researchers found a 29% increase in power disconnections and a 76% rise in gas shutoffs between January and October 2022, compared to the same period in 2021.
To address the shutoffs crisis, said the authors, the U.S. Energy Information Administration and Congress could require reporting on utility disconnections, while Congress "should vastly increase" funding for energy assistance programs for low-income households. Addressing the "underlying conditions"—reliance on fossil fuels for energy—and phasing out the use of oil, gas, and coal is also key to stopping punitive shutoffs.
Congress must also "enact a nationwide ban on utility shutoffs and other punitive collection practices for unpaid household utility bills for households meeting poverty criteria," said the authors, expanding on pandemic-era legislation.
"Access to electricity is a basic human right," reads the analysis. "People rely on electricity for water, physical safety, food security, medical care, and telecommunications. When these essentials are taken away, the harm spreads like ripples across a pond."
"The preventable practice of disconnections keeps millions of Americans in poverty and narrows their avenues of escape," the authors added. "By giving utility companies the power to penalize poverty, we license them to perpetuate it."
Allowing Sultan al-Jaber, head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, to preside over the next U.N. climate conference "risks undermining the very essence of what is trying to be accomplished."
More than two dozen members of Congress have called on top U.S. climate diplomat John Kerry to push the United Arab Emirates to replace Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, as president-designate of the United Nations COP28 meeting set to begin this November.
In a Friday letter to Kerry, 27 U.S. lawmakers wrote that "the decision to name the chief executive of one of the world's largest oil and gas companies as president of the next U.N. Climate Change Conference risks jeopardizing climate progress."
The U.A.E.'s move earlier this month to appoint al-Jaber as leader of the upcoming round of international climate negotiations has been widely condemned. So too has Kerry's celebration of the pick as "a terrific choice."
Led by Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), the lawmakers wrote: "To help ensure that COP28 is a serious and productive climate summit, we believe the United States should urge the United Arab Emirates to name a different lead for COP28 or, at a minimum, seek assurances that it will promote an ambitious COP28 aligned with the 1.5°C limit and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) findings and take concrete steps to demonstrate domestic and regional leadership toward this end."
"Having a fossil fuel champion in charge of the world's most important climate negotiations would be like having the CEO of a cigarette conglomerate in charge of global tobacco policy."
Like the 26 annual U.N. climate gatherings that preceded it, COP27 ended last November with no commitment to a swift and just global phase-out of oil, gas, and coal. Despite scientists' repeated warnings that expanding fossil fuel production will intensify the deadly impacts of the climate emergency, hundreds of corporations—including several based in the U.S. and the U.A.E.—are planning to ramp up planet-heating pollution in the years ahead.
Progressive critics have connected the dots between policymakers' ongoing failure to directly confront the fossil fuel industry—whose drive to maximize short-term profits is putting the future of humanity at risk—and Big Oil's corrupting influence at U.N. climate talks. While climate justice activists were heavily policed throughout the resort city of Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt during COP27, more than 630 fossil fuel lobbyists were granted access to the meeting.
In their letter to Kerry, members of Congress argued that allowing al-Jaber to preside over debates about the scale and pace of decarbonization threatens to exacerbate this untenable situation, leading to further delays in needed climate action.
"The appointment of an oil company executive to head COP28 poses a risk to the negotiation process as well as the whole conference itself," wrote the lawmakers. "Having a fossil fuel champion in charge of the world's most important climate negotiations would be like having the CEO of a cigarette conglomerate in charge of global tobacco policy. It risks undermining the very essence of what is trying to be accomplished."
"Future COPs should require any participating company to submit an audited corporate political influencing statement that discloses climate-related lobbying, campaign contributions, and funding of trade associations and organizations active on energy and climate issues," they continued.
"COPs should not provide a stage for greenwashing," the members of Congress added. "They should be convenings for serious climate actors and actions. Such commonsense reforms to help restore public faith in the COP process will obviously be impossible with an oil company executive at the helm."
Signatories include Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), as well as Democratic Reps. Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.), Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), Barbara Lee (Calif.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), and Bonnie Watson Coleman (N.J.).
The lawmakers' letter to Kerry came one day after a global network of more than 450 climate justice organizations wrote in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres that "no COP overseen by a fossil fuel executive can be seen as legitimate."
"This latest act of sabotage conducted via a military attack inside Iran is a dangerous escalation and should be cause for concern for everyone who opposes war," said one campaigner.
Unnamed U.S. officials on Sunday confirmed suspicions that Israel was behind the weekend drone attack on a purported military facility in the Iranian city of Isfahan, heightening concerns that the far-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is gearing up for a broader assault on Iran as international nuclear talks remain at a standstill.
The New York Timesreported that the drone attack—which Iran says it mostly thwarted—was "the work of the Mossad, Israel's premier intelligence agency, according to senior intelligence officials who were familiar with the dialogue between Israel and the United States about the incident."
"American officials quickly sent out word on Sunday morning that the United States was not responsible for the attack," the Times noted. "One official confirmed that it had been conducted by Israel but did not have details about the target."
The Times added that the "facility that was struck on Saturday was in the middle of the city and did not appear to be nuclear-related."
The Wall Street Journal also reported Sunday that Israel carried out the attack, which was launched hours before U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in the Middle East for planned trips to Israel, Egypt, and the occupied West Bank.
Last week, CIA Director William Burns made an unannounced trip to Israel to discuss "Iran and other regional issues," according to the Journal.
Jamal Abdi, president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), said in a statement that he is "deeply concerned by the gathering clouds of war in the Middle East."
"This latest act of sabotage conducted via a military attack inside Iran is a dangerous escalation and should be cause for concern for everyone who opposes war," said Abdi. "War will only further empower the most violent and repressive forces inside Iran at the expense of ordinary Iranians demanding freedom, and will embolden reactionary elements in Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S."
"It is vital that we call for all sides to exercise restraint and to prioritize non-military solutions to the tensions threatening the region."
Israel's latest attack inside Iran's borders came after negotiations aimed at bringing the U.S. back into the Iran nuclear accord—which former President Donald Trump violated in 2018—hit a wall. President Joe Biden told a rallygoer in November that the Iran deal "is dead, but we're not gonna announce it."
Israel's spy agency has made clear that a newly negotiated nuclear accord would not stop its attacks on Iran.
"Even if a nuclear deal is signed, it will not give Iran immunity from the Mossad operations," Mossad chief David Barnea said in September. "We won't take part in this charade and we don't close our eyes to the proven truth."
Earlier this month, Netanyahu—a longtime Iran hawk who has been making false predictions about Tehran's supposed nuclear bomb ambitions for years—vowed to "act powerfully and openly on the international level against the return to the nuclear agreement."
In the absence of a nuclear agreement, the Journal reported Sunday that the U.S. and Israel are looking for "new ways to contain" Iran, which condemned the Saturday attack as "cowardly."
Citing the Journal's story, Trita Parsi of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft tweeted Sunday that "unlike before, when U.S. officials stayed silent or only confirmed Israel's role in attacks on Iran days later, now U.S. officials immediately name Israel and appear to hint that it is part of a joint effort to 'contain' Iran."
"War is clearly back on the agenda," Parsi added.
Abdi of NIAC echoed that warning, arguing that "the Islamic Republic's brutal crackdown against the Iranian people, its assistance in Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine, and its rapidly expanding nuclear program freed from the restraints of the JCPOA have pushed tensions to a boiling point."
"This, coupled with the rise of a hardline administration in Israel that appears determined to push the envelope militarily, an increasingly assertive Saudi royal family, and a U.S. that has been unable to turn the page on the Trump administration's destabilizing Middle East policies, makes for an exceedingly volatile cocktail," Abdi said. "For those of us who favor democracy, human rights, and peace, it is vital that we call for all sides to exercise restraint and to prioritize non-military solutions to the tensions threatening the region."