Behind the curtain of Wells Fargo's corporate PAC
Donations made by corporate PACs must be disclosed publicly. But corporations are generally tight-lipped about why they donate to certain politicians. Documents obtained by Popular Information, however, reveal the internal workings of Wells Fargo's PAC, the third-largest PAC in the financial services industry. It's not a pretty picture.
On January 12, 2021, Brian Smith, the head of Government Relations and Public Policy for Wells Fargo, sent a message to Wells Fargo employees involved with the PAC. Smith announced that "the company's senior leadership has decided the nonpartisan Wells Fargo Political Action Committee (PAC) will pause our political donations for the foreseeable future." When donations resume, Smith wrote, "we will take into consideration the actions of elected officials who objected to the Electoral College vote during this critical period in our democracy."
Smith stated that the new criteria of considering the voter to overturn the election was "important because it reflects who we are as a company, that we conduct ourselves with the highest standards of integrity, that we respect our nation's laws, and that we commit ourselves to fostering diversity, equality and inclusion."
Wells Fargo's PAC was "paused" for less than 90 days. On April 9, 2021, the Wells Fargo PAC donated $15,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), a multi-candidate political committee supporting the reelection of more than 100 Republican House members that voted to overturn the election on January 6. In August 2021, the Wells Fargo PAC began donating to individual members of Congress that voted against certifying the Electoral College, including $5,000 to Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), $5,000 to Congressman Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-MO), and $2,500 to Congressman David Kustoff (R-TN).
After August 2021, Wells Fargo PAC support to members of Congress that voted to subvert the democratic process accelerated. According to the latest campaign finance data, Wells Fargo PAC has now donated a total of $94,500 to 14 Republican objectors. Additionally, Wells Fargo donated $45,000 each to the NRCC and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, money that will also be used to support Republican objectors.
How did the Wells Fargo PAC, which pledged to "take into consideration the actions of elected officials who objected to the Electoral College vote," become one of the top donors to Republicans who voted against certification of the Electoral College on January 6?
The answer is revealed in a Wells Fargo PAC "Transparency Report" that details its political spending in 2021 and the first quarter of 2022. Ironically, the "Transparency Report" is not available publicly. Popular Information obtained it from a source inside the company who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the report to the media.
The report details the Wells Fargo PAC's new "contribution criteria." Despite Smith's promise, there is no mention of the January 6 vote against certifying the electoral college in the criteria or anywhere else in the document. Instead, the Wells Fargo PAC says it supports candidates that meet one or more of these four factors:
• Champion public policy that supports the financial services industry, economic growth, innovation and a strong workforce
• Hold, or are likely to hold, a political or legislative leadership position
• Serve on legislative committees or caucuses that have jurisdiction over issues of importance to Wells Fargo
• Represent a state or district that includes a Wells Fargo facility or significant constituent base of Wells Fargo employees
All of these factors hinge on the ability of a candidate to enhance or protect Wells Fargo's bottom line. The rest of the document lists the Wells Fargo PAC's contributions in 2021 and the first three months of 2022 to state and federal candidates, along with the factors that qualified each candidate.
Elsewhere in the report, the Wells Fargo PAC says it "aim[s] to support candidates who align with our company expectations, are willing to work in a bipartisan manner, act with integrity, and support diversity, equity, and inclusion."
None of these factors, however, are listed in the contribution chart. And they appear to be optional, rather than required, qualities. In 2021, Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R), for example, "ordered state child welfare officials to launch child abuse investigations" into the parents of trans youth. Abbott also helped Trump advance false claims of voter fraud. Nevertheless, Abbott received $20,000 from the Wells Fargo PAC.
Popular Information contacted Wells Fargo and asked why it did not include the January 6 vote to overturn the election as part of its PAC contribution criteria. Wells Fargo did not respond.
Who really controls corporate PACs
Corporations use PACs because direct corporate contributions to federal candidates are prohibited by law. Corporate PACs rely on voluntary contributions from employees for funding. Many corporations try to use this to describe their PACs as simply a group of employees seeking to make their voices heard. Wells Fargo, for example, calls its corporate PAC the "Wells Fargo and Company Employees Good Government Federal Fund."
The reality, however, is that donations to corporate PACs are only formally "voluntary." In many companies, well-compensated employees are expected to donate to corporate PACs as a matter of course. Then, executives in the government affairs division — AKA lobbyists — decide where to spend the money.
A FAQ on Wells Fargo's internal PAC site explains how it works:
Every two-year election cycle the Federal Government Relations team and the State and Local Government Relations team develops a PAC budget. The Head of Government Relations and Public Policy must approve of the decisions. Approval by the aforementioned team members, the Head of Political Programs, our legal, and compliance teams ensures a robust approval process.
Notice that employee-donors have no say in how the money is spent. This would be a problem if PACs were really driven by employees. But the reality is that corporate PACs are simply an extension of corporate lobbying efforts.
What Wells Fargo's political spending says about its commitment to reproductive rights
On Monday, Wells Fargo announced that, as of July 1, it is "expanding the coverage of our travel benefit to include reimbursement of transportation and lodging costs for legal abortion-related services” for employees and their dependents covered by the company health insurance. The company told employees that it wants "to ensure you have access to quality health care, when you need it, and where you need it." Wells Fargo joins a handful of other companies that have instituted similar policies to show employees that the company is committed to preserving their reproductive rights.
On November 1, 2021, however, Wells Fargo donated $25,000 to the Republican Attorney Generals Association (RAGA), an organization that is actively fighting to eliminate abortion rights nationwide.
In Wisconsin, for example, there is a statute banning abortion, enacted in 1849, that has been unenforceable since Roe. Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul (D) has said he will "not investigate or prosecute anyone for having an abortion" based on the archaic state law. RAGA, however, has already reserved $682,250 in TV ad time for spots opposing Kaul. The group is supporting Eric Toney, who has pledged to enforce the abortion ban if elected.
Wells Fargo's $25,000 donation came directly from its corporate treasury, not its corporate PAC. Under the law, RAGA can accept unlimited direct corporate donations.