One of the country’s largest banks was found in contempt of court Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Augusta after the bank repeatedly failed to comply with court orders.
U.S. District Court Judge Dudley H. Bowen Jr. found Wells Fargo not only in civil contempt of court but also in criminal contempt of court. The final straw was an 11-day delay in the receipt of an $8,000 check out of the bank account of a convicted bank robber.
Wells Fargo’s troubles complying with court orders started July 31 when Bowen issued orders for the bank to freeze the account of Andrew Nelson and to provide bank statements on the account to a probation officer.
Nelson was under indictment on charges of robbing a Wells Fargo bank branch on Jan. 5, 2013. He was appointed an attorney free of charge, and his attorney sought money to pay for a psychiatric evaluation.
Bowen ordered a probation officer to determine Nelson’s financial condition after learning Nelson had several thousand dollars in the bank, mostly from an $800 monthly disability check. The Department of Veterans Affairs payment was for post-traumatic stress disorder. Nelson, the judge said, had never served a day outside the United States.
The probation officer got Nelson’s previous bank statements but none after July, which was included in Bowen’s order. On Aug. 9, the officer learned that Nelson’s bank account – which was supposed to be frozen – had dropped by about $2,000.
Bowen repeated his court orders in August. On Jan. 23, after learning that Wells Fargo had failed to provide the bank statements as ordered, Bowen set a hearing for the next day. Bank executives were subpoenaed to court.
Wells Fargo Vice President Susan Honnicut, who is also president of the area marketing and represents the bank in the community, learned of the situation the day the subpoenas were issued. A half-hour before the hearing, the documents were delivered.
Bowen canceled the hearing, but in an order Jan. 24, he warned Wells Fargo there could be no further excuses in complying with court orders.
Seven days later, Bowen ruled that Nelson should bear some of the cost of his defense, and the judge issued a court order requiring Wells Fargo to send an $8,000 payment from Nelson’s account.
Bowen said he was not persuaded that Wells Fargo had complied simply by claiming “the check is in the mail.”
“I dare say the bank’s not likely to accept that explanation very often,” Bowen said. Pointing out that one of Wells Fargo’s 60,000 branches was just a few blocks from the federal courthouse, Bowen said there was no excuse for the delay.
“They are certainly not too big to comply with this court’s orders,” Bowen said of Wells Fargo, which received in 2008 and later repaid $25 billion in bailout money.
Saying a juror arriving late to court might be fined $100 for contempt, Bowen set Wells Fargo’s penalty at $5,000 for criminal contempt of court. He fined the bank $2,500 for civil contempt and ordered both sums to be paid immediately.
Bowen imposed a daily penalty of $2,500 until the check is received or Wells Fargo has paid $8,000.
Nelson was convicted of bank robbery on Feb. 6. A sentencing date has not been set.