The PBS star attracted crowds to what appeared on the surface as a way to help black borrowers build wealth, but a lawsuit alleges it was actually just the opposite.
As the housing market began booming in the mid-2000s, Wells Fargo & Co. teamed up with prominent African American commentator and PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley and financial author Kelvin Boston, the host of “Moneywise,” a multicultural financial affairs show, to host something called “Wealth Building” seminars in black neighborhoods.
Smiley was the keynote speaker, and the big draw, according to Boston and Keith Corbett, executive vice president of the Center for Responsible Lending, who attended two of the seminars. Smiley would charge up the audience — and rattle the Wells Fargo executives in attendance — by launching into a story about how he hated banks, and how they used to refuse to lend him money for his real estate projects in Compton, Calif., and elsewhere. After Hurricane Katrina, Smiley also emphasized the importance of building assets and wealth, saying those who had done so were able to leave New Orleans, while people with nothing had to stay behind, Boston said.
“My spiel was the financial planning process, how you want to be able to save and invest for the future, and to have a plan of action,” Boston said. “Then Tavis talked about his experiences with the banks, and how people should be thinking about some real estate.”
The seminars in some cities drew standing room only crowds, with numerous Wells Fargo representatives on hand, seated at carrels to meet one-on-one with potential borrowers who lined up after the speeches, which were usually held in hotels. The free, day-long events were heavily advertised in the black media, and launched in eight cities, including Baltimore, Chicago, Richmond, Va., and San Francisco.
But what appeared on the surface as a way to help black borrowers build wealth was actually just the opposite, according to a little-noticed explanation of the “Wealth Building” seminar strategy, contained in a lawsuit recently filed by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
Wells’ plan for the seminars all along was to target black borrowers for higher-cost subprime mortgages, not for wealth-building, the suit charged. And the seminars were a part of the bank’s overall illegal and discriminatory practice of steering black and Hispanic borrowers into riskier and more expensive loans, the suit said.
“According to a former Wells Fargo Home Mortgage employee, one of these ‘Wealth Building’ seminars held in Maryland was planned for an audience that would be virtually all African American,” the suit said. “The plan for the seminar was for Wells Fargo Home Mortgage employees to talk about subprime mortgages, although they were directed by Wells Fargo Home Mortgage to use the term ‘alternative lending’ when marketing these products.”
The former employee, who is white, was scheduled to speak at the seminar, but was told by a manager that she was “too white,” and that only black employees could make presentations, the suit said.
Wells Fargo, one of the nation’s largest mortgage lenders and a recipient of $25 billion in government bailout money, has denied all the charges in the Illinois suit, as well as other allegations of unfair lending. The bank did not respond to requests for comment on the seminars. Smiley, an author and advocate who hosts the late night talk show, “Tavis Smiley,” and who organizes the State of the Black Union symposiums each year, also declined comment.
Corbett pointed out that Wells’ outreach to the minority community through the seminars wasn’t unusual. Lenders sponsoring financial literacy sessions, holding wealth building seminars, or contributing to local minority advocacy organizations, became a common marketing strategy as the subprime market grew. Some of the efforts were genuine, aimed at finding new customers in minority neighborhoods once deprived of credit. But sometimes they were used instead as a cover to push predatory loans, Corbett said.
“The wealth building seminars are certainly needed,” Corbett said. “But, if, in fact, Wells was selling bad products out of them, it was totally wrong.”
Boston, for his part, described himself as the small player in the seminars, giving an opening talk before Smiley went on. Boston said he spoke in general terms about the need to save money and to invest. Neither he nor Smiley ever mentioned or discussed subprime loans, he said.
“Basically we were just speakers for hire,” Boston said. “We didn’t have any role or any control over what else happened. The main point is that we were not involved in any of their discussions or in anything they sold.”
Corbett said that after the speakers finished, bank employees and other financial experts were offering credit checks, real estate counseling, and other kinds of assistance. Corbett said he also believes some employees were signing up people for loan pre-approvals, on the spot, though he couldn’t be sure of what kind of loans they were. He said attendees lined up to talk to the Wells employees in both events. “If they weren’t actually selling loans, they were setting up borrowers for the kill,” Corbett said.
Once their speeches were over, however, Boston said he and Smiley had nothing to do with the workshops and counseling. He said he and Smiley together did about 15 seminars over a period of about two years. He declined to comment on how much he or Smiley were paid.
In 2005, before the subprime crisis, Boston said, the main worry in the black community over mortgage lending was the banks were lagging behind in their lending to minority neighborhoods. He said expressed his concerns about this to Wells Fargo. Smiley, he said, also later raised questions about subprime lending tactics with the bank. “Tavis definitely had some dealings with them on this issue,” Boston said.
Nonetheless, in hindsight and with the collapse of the subprime mortgage market, Boston said he has second thoughts about participating in the seminars.
“Were we probably used? We probably were,” he said. “If I had the chance to do it over again, would I do it in a different manner? Probably.”
“You look back now and you feel for the homeowner who could have qualified for a better mortgage and got the costly type of mortgage. That concerns me a lot, not just for Wells Fargo, but for everybody out there, Citigroup, Countrywide … they were all doing the same events.”
But at the time, Boston said, having a major bank doing outreach in the black community was considered an encouraging development, after so many years of redlining and restricted access to credit. “We all thought at the time that we were doing a positive thing,” he said.
Boston said he quit doing the seminars after his contract ended two years ago. Smiley, he said, continued to work with Wells Fargo, particularly on his annual State of the Black Union symposiums. On his Website, Smiley recently posted a statement regarding Wells Fargo that said, “in this economic climate, we continue to be reminded every day that there is no perfect company.”
Smiley said in the statement that his relationship with Wells began in 2005, as part of the bank’s “commitment to increase financial literacy in the African American community.” He said that “the partnership with Wells Fargo focused on building personal wealth, which for most Americans begins with buying a house.”
According to the statement, Smiley also has had partnerships with other companies, but has never served as a spokesperson or representative for any of them, including Wells Fargo. The statement also said Wells Fargo will no longer be one of the sponsors of his Black State of the Union event in 2010, although the bank sponsored the event as recently as last spring.
“Given the fact that Wells Fargo has been an industry leader, they have partnered with many African American and Latino national civil rights organizations on various community initiatives,” the statement said.
The Illinois lawsuit against Wells is one of many such actions winding their way through the court system around the country, offering more details of alleged discriminatory tactics by lenders during the height of the subprime boom. As TWI reported last week, housing advocates call these lawsuits the “smoking guns” of the housing crisis, providing what they see as proof that lenders deliberately targeted minorities for high-rate and risky subprime mortgages, while white borrowers with similar incomes and credit scores received lower-cost loans.
In a city of Baltimore lawsuit against Wells, former employees charged that Wells Fargo loan officers referred to minority borrowers as “mud people” and called subprime mortgages “ghetto loans.” But some prominent black bloggers find the “wealth building” seminars just as egregious, and question why Smiley, Boston, and anyone else who participated in them hasn’t been called on further to account for their actions.
“If Tavis Smiley was white, Wells Fargo and ‘Ghetto Loans’ would be front page news,” wrote Genma Stringer Holmes, a Nashville, Tenn., business owner and blogger who has blasted out several posts on the seminars.
Holmes said Smiley should speak out more against discriminatory subprime lending practices – but he hasn’t been forced to, because the black media has been silent on the issue, she said. The scandal that remains is that the ads and seminars targeted the most vulnerable members of black community, according to Holmes. “People who follow Tavis will follow him off a cliff,” Holmes said.
Boston said he still does seminars and presentations pushing wealth building, but he focuses on avoiding foreclosures and helping with loan modifications. He recently wrapped up work on an upcoming show on helping homeowners facing foreclosures, he said.
This story has been updated for clarity.
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