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