[Marxism] The Former Khmer Rouge Slave Who Blew the Whistle on Wells Fargo

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Mar 25 12:38:58 MDT 2018


(Really great reporting.)

NY Times, March 24, 2018
The Former Khmer Rouge Slave Who Blew the Whistle on Wells Fargo
By EMILY FLITTER

After Duke Tran escaped from slavery, but before he became a 
millionaire, he was a Wells Fargo employee.

He worked at the bank’s debt-collections center near Portland, Ore., 
talking on the phone to customers who owed Wells Fargo money. It wasn’t 
glamorous, but the job enabled him to afford a two-story suburban house 
with mustard-colored aluminum siding. After more than three decades in 
the United States, Mr. Tran felt that he was the living embodiment of 
the American dream.

And then it all started to crumble.

In 2014, according to Mr. Tran, his boss ordered him to lie to customers 
who were facing foreclosure. When Mr. Tran refused, he said, he was 
fired. He worried that he wouldn’t be able to make his monthly mortgage 
payments and that he was about to become homeless.

Joining a cadre of former employees claiming they were mistreated for 
speaking out about problems at the bank, Mr. Tran sued. He argued in 
court filings that he had been fired in retaliation for blowing the 
whistle on misconduct at the giant San Francisco-based bank. Mr. Tran 
said he didn’t want his job back — he wanted Wells Fargo to admit that 
it had been wrong to fire him and wrong to mislead customers who were 
facing foreclosure.

It was a long shot. Banks generally are happy to reach private 
settlements, but loath to publicly admit wrongdoing, which can open them 
up to litigation. But Mr. Tran, who fled Vietnam as a teenager and then 
was enslaved by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, wasn’t daunted by long odds.

And so Mr. Tran, who is in his mid-50s and speaks English with a heavy 
Vietnamese accent and jumbled grammar, became the latest foe to take on 
Wells Fargo.

The bank already faced widespread condemnation from regulators, 
lawmakers and enraged customers for opening fake accounts and otherwise 
deceiving and defrauding its customers.

But the conduct that so unsettled Mr. Tran was not something the bank 
had previously been accused of; he was alone in leveling the 
accusations. He said the bank was trying to cover up the fact that it 
did not have the documents to prove some of its customers owed money it 
was trying to collect. To further his lawsuit, he opened his life to 
intense scrutiny, used vacation time at his new job to attend meetings 
and court dates, and told and retold the story of his experiences at the 
bank, which maintained that Mr. Tran had been fired for poor performance 
and that there had been no cover-up of missing documents. He would not 
go away.

“I have a story to tell,” he said in an interview with The New York 
Times. “This is a true story. I blew the whistle. They all know.”

Captured at 17

Mr. Tran calls himself Duke now, but his name at birth was Tran Duy Duc. 
He was born in Vietnam in 1961, the son of a colonel in the South 
Vietnamese military fighting alongside American troops. Mr. Tran was 13 
when, in 1975, the North Vietnamese took over the government and sent 
his father to a prison camp as punishment for helping the Americans. 
When released four years later, Mr. Tran’s father paid to sneak Mr. Tran 
over the Cambodian border.

“You have to leave,” his father told him.

As soon as he got to Cambodia, though, Mr. Tran was captured by fighters 
for the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. They forced him to drink vinegar, 
believing he had swallowed gold and family jewels that the vinegar would 
help expel. Then they made the 17-year-old their slave, forcing him to 
dig wells.

“Sometimes the soldiers got drunk and took me out and put AK-47s to my 
head so I would pass out,” Mr. Tran said.

Eight months after he was caught, Mr. Tran’s captors traded him to aid 
workers who carried humanitarian supplies. He still remembers the items 
that bought his freedom: a kilo of rice, two boxes of canned tuna, two 
boxes of sardines in tomato sauce, antibiotics and some other medical 
supplies.

The aid workers took him to Thailand. From there, the International 
Organization for Migration helped him reach the United States.

“I am so grateful,” Mr. Tran said. “Here I am, an American citizen.”

His first job in America was scrubbing pots in a restaurant kitchen. 
Soon after that, he got his first call center job, in the payment 
processing division of a local bank. He said in an interview that he had 
worked in call centers for a total of 25 years.

In 2002, he began working in a call center for Wells Fargo’s collections 
unit in Vancouver, Wash. In March 2013, he transferred to another Wells 
Fargo unit, the home equity division, in nearby Beaverton, Ore.

Mr. Tran was proud of his work. In an interview, he described himself as 
“a really model employee” who got internal recognition at Wells for his 
good work.

The division was responsible for a portfolio of home-equity loans that 
Wells Fargo had bought from another company at the peak of the financial 
crisis in 2008. As the bank examined the loans in 2013, employees 
realized that Wells Fargo was missing some of the paperwork that proved 
the borrowers owed money to the bank.

his identification card. Credit Amanda Lucier for The New York Times
Tom Goyda, a Wells Fargo spokesman, confirmed the existence of the 
problem. He said 120 of the loans had initially appeared to be missing 
their underlying documents.

Mr. Goyda said the bank was confident that the loans Mr. Tran cited were 
valid and that it had handled them properly. He said Mr. Tran had only 
limited visibility of the bank’s internal system and that he did not 
have access to all of the borrowers’ information.

Nine months into his new job, Mr. Tran answered a phone call from a 
Wells Fargo customer in Lexington, N.C. His name was Walter Coles.

Mr. Coles, who is now 88, had recently opened a letter that Wells Fargo 
sent to his wife, Jacqueline. He handled her affairs because she has 
Alzheimer’s. The letter said that Mrs. Coles owed Wells Fargo nearly 
$90,000 and that if she did not pay within 90 days the bank would 
foreclose on the Coleses’ house.

Mr. Coles had credit card accounts with Wells Fargo, but this was the 
first he had heard of any $90,000 loan. “I knew that my wife hadn’t 
taken out a mortgage,” he said in an interview. “My house was paid off 
35 years ago.”

So he called Wells Fargo. On the phone with Mr. Tran, Mr. Coles asked 
for proof that his wife owed the money. Mr. Tran tried to pull up the 
Coles file on his computer, but he couldn’t find the loan documents. He 
told Mr. Coles that they were missing.

Mr. Tran started calling various Wells Fargo offices to figure out what 
had happened, he said. He consulted bank archives in San Francisco and 
Roanoke, Va., to try to find the documents.

“We were unable to locate the agreement. Document is not available,” a 
Wells employee reported in an email to Mr. Tran, which was reviewed by 
The Times.

Another employee responded: “We have tried all avenues to find documents 
but no luck.”

Mr. Tran talked to his boss, Peter LeDonne, about the situation. He said 
Mr. LeDonne had told him not to follow up with Mr. Coles. “They tell me: 
‘It’s no problem. If the customer call back, you tell them it’s a 
balloon,’” Mr. Tran recalled, referring to a type of loan that would 
require Mr. Coles to repay the owed amount all at once.

Through a Wells Fargo spokesman, Mr. LeDonne declined to comment for 
this article.

‘Not Something We Would Share’

Mr. Tran wasn’t the only Wells employee to receive that advice.

In an April 2014 email to Mr. Tran and other employees, reviewed by The 
Times, a Wells Fargo manager, Cazzie Moreland, said that when the bank 
couldn’t find the documents proving a loan existed, “that is not 
something we would share with the customer under any circumstances.”

Mr. Goyda, the bank spokesman, said Ms. Moreland’s email was “poorly 
worded, but it’s one email that was part of a larger communication and 
training effort.” He said the bank didn’t want customer service 
representatives, who didn’t have access to all of the bank’s document 
storage systems, to act hastily.

“What we didn’t want was to have a customer call and to have the 
representative mistakenly tell them something,” Mr. Goyda said.

Mr. Tran said in his lawsuit that he had felt uncomfortable as soon as 
he had seen how Mr. Coles’s inquiry was handled. Mr. Coles was insisting 
that he and his wife had never borrowed any money in the first place. He 
was — reasonably, in Mr. Tran’s view — demanding proof that any loan 
existed. Mr. Tran said he had shared his feelings with his boss.

Before long, Mr. Tran said, he received another unsettling customer 
phone call. This time, it was from a woman named Nancy who said the bank 
had told her that she owed $165,000. She said she had not taken out a loan.

“She was really emotional,” Mr. Tran said. “She said: ‘I have all my 
children live in my home. I don’t have money to pay. Where is my 
children going to live?’”

Once again, the bank had no paperwork to prove that the borrower owed 
the money, Mr. Tran said. He said he had complained to his supervisor, 
Mr. LeDonne, and his boss’s boss.

“I told him this is a fraud, I cannot be a part of that. He got upset,” 
Mr. Tran said.

In a court filing last year, Mr. LeDonne said: “I had no knowledge that 
Mr. Tran reported or complained of what he believed to be an alleged 
Wells Fargo practice of deceiving customers regarding missing loan 
documents or other unlawful activities.”

On Nov. 12, 2014, Mr. Tran said, Mr. LeDonne called him into an office. 
A group of Mr. Tran’s superiors was waiting. They asked for his security 
badge and told him that he was fired. Mr. LeDonne and a Wells lawyer 
marched him out the front door.

“I’m thinking I’m going to die,” Mr. Tran recalled. “From the time they 
walk me out that door, I don’t have any backup.”

On the street, they told him that if he had any questions about why he 
was fired, he could call a number they gave him for a human resources 
representative.

He called the number. An H.R. person told Mr. Tran that he had been 
fired for failing to orally respond to a customer whose call he had 
answered.

Mr. Tran was mortified. He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t bring himself to 
tell his wife, Ann, and their sons, Justin and Jimmy, that he had been 
fired. When they asked why he wasn’t going to work in the mornings, Mr. 
Tran said he was on vacation. When that excuse no longer seemed 
plausible, he invented another.

“I thought, my God, I’ve lost my American dream,” he said.

His wife worked in a dental equipment factory. She earned $17 per hour, 
and it was suddenly the family’s only income.

Gnawing Anger

After three months of unemployment, in February 2015 he landed a call 
center job at U.S. Bank, where he still works.

Even with a new job, he remained angry about what he felt was his unfair 
firing. In June 2015, he sued Wells Fargo in federal court for 
retaliation and other claims. His lawyers argued that Wells had tried to 
silence him and, when that failed, fired him.

Wells Fargo tried, through standard court procedures including a motion 
to dismiss, to kill the lawsuit, to no avail.

Mr. Tran wanted to go to trial. He and his lawyers never specified how 
much money they wanted a jury to award Mr. Tran in damages and 
compensation, but they said in a court filing that it should be no more 
than $179 billion — a figure they knew was unrealistic. What Mr. Tran 
really wanted, he said, was to force Wells to publicly admit wrongdoing.

Wells Fargo’s lawyers maintained that the bank had fired Mr. Tran for 
poor performance. They claimed Mr. Tran never reported anything to his 
superiors. Court filings indicate that they hoped to use inconsistencies 
in his deposition to prove he couldn’t show when or how he had 
complained about the lost loan documents.

A trial was scheduled for last month in federal court in Portland. After 
years of discovery, the trial promised to dredge up unflattering 
information about Wells Fargo. The timing was bad: The bank was in the 
final stages of negotiating a painful settlement with the Federal 
Reserve, which would bar Wells Fargo from growing until it fixed its 
problems. The bank was trying to position itself as having moved past 
its era of malfeasance.

With the trial three weeks away, Wells Fargo asked to engage in 
mediation, according to Mr. Tran’s lawyer, Michael Fuller. Mr. Fuller 
told Mr. Tran that it was possible Wells Fargo would try to settle the case.

Mr. Fuller said in an interview in late January that he could not 
foresee Mr. Tran’s settling for less than $10 million.

Mr. Tran did not want to settle. He wanted Wells Fargo to have to admit 
it was wrong.

“They have so much money,” he said in a Feb. 2 interview. “They use that 
money to buy off the American justice system, and they never go to court.”

He said he was considering not showing up to the meeting.

“I’m ready to go to court,” he said. “I’m not going to settle.”

The next day, Mr. Tran settled. He stopped returning phone calls seeking 
comment.

People familiar with the settlement said it included a seven-figure 
payment to Mr. Tran.

Mr. Coles, the Wells Fargo customer who said the bank had spent three 
years trying to collect money he never borrowed, laughed when told of 
the settlement’s size.

“That’s good for him,” he said. “He hasn’t got anything to worry about now.”

Mr. Coles is still battling the bank. “I think we should be compensated 
for the trouble they’ve caused us,” he said.

Follow Emily Flitter on Twitter: @FlitterOnFraud.



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