Wells Fargo (wfcnp) knew it was under investigation for six months before its account fraud scandal became public, the bank confirmed to Fortune in an email, raising questions over whether investors and the public should have been alerted sooner.
The Charlotte Observer first reported that company emails, which the paper obtained through a FOIA request, indicate that Wells Fargo’s lawyers were in discussions with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) as early as March 2016, long before the agency fined the bank $100 million, thrusting the scandal into public view.
Federal law requires companies to disclose “material” information—anything that could reasonably alter the public’s perception of a firm’s value and influence stock market decisions.
According to CNNMoney, the bank had submitted public filings just weeks before it was fined by the CFPB that made no mention of the investigation or the forthcoming settlement. CNN reports that the law explicitly requires disclosure of legal proceedings beyond routine litigation, which include cases “known to be contemplated by government authorities.”
Wells Fargo told Fortune in an emailed statement that the bank considers “all available relevant and appropriate facts and circumstances” when deciding what to disclose each quarter. While the bank appears to have deemed the investigation immaterial, experts and investors cited by the Observer saw things differently.
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“On the basis of what we know, it’s hard to argue this wasn’t material,” Philip Nichols, a professor of legal studies and business ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, told the Observer. “I cannot understand why they didn’t think that was. It just makes me laugh.”
The San Francisco-based bank was ultimately forced to pay out some $185 million in fines to the CFPB and other authorities after it was discovered that its branch tellers, under pressure to meet aggressive sales goals, had created as many as 2 million fake accounts without customer authorization.
While the fines were a drop in the ocean compared to the company’s profits—the Observer reports that Wells Fargo made about $16.7 billion in the first nine months of 2016—the investigation did massive damage to the company’s reputation.
Wells Fargo’s market value dropped by tens of billions of dollars, according to the Observer, and a series of congressional hearings dealt the bank an embarrassingly public blow. Outcry over the incident ultimately led its former CEO John Stumpf to resign.
This story has been updated.