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Best of 2009: Tavis Smiley Says He’s Cutting Ties to Wells Fargo

All day, we’re re-running our favorite blog posts of the last year. This post was originally published on Sept. 20, 2009.

Prominent author, commentator and PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley has announced that he’s cutting all business ties to Wells Fargo & Co. The move comes in the wake of a TWI story last week about Wells Fargo “Wealth Building” seminars held in black neighborhoods starting in 2005, headlined by Smiley, which a recent lawsuit filed by the Illinois attorney general charged were nothing more than sales pitches for high-rate subprime loans.

Richard Prince reported Friday in his “Journal-isms” column that Smiley said he would sever all ties with Wells Fargo until charges that the company steered minorities into higher-rate loans are resolved.

Wells Fargo sponsored Smiley’s radio show on Public Radio International, and underwrote the annual C-Span-televised “State of the Black Union” conference that Smiley organizes. Smiley’s foundation also distributed Wells Fargo materials to young people at foundation events, he told Journal-isms.

“I cut everything off with Wells Fargo,” Smiley declared. He said the move cost “a lot of money”; he said he did not know how much.

Prince also noted that Smiley’s comments came as the TWI article circulated, which reported that Smiley was hired by Wells to be a keynote speaker at the seminars, which were advertised in the black media and launched in eight cities, including Baltimore, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

“I was never a spokesman for Wells Fargo,” Smiley said. “I hate payday loans. My role in these seminars was about financial literacy and wealth building.”

Smiley commented on his business partnership with Wells:

Smiley said his relationship with Wells Fargo was a “package deal.” In return for the company helping to finance his radio show, he went on the road for Wells Fargo. He said he owns his own radio and television show and while it frees him from network control, it also requires him to come up with his own financing.

TWI reported that the seminars appeared on the surface as a way to help black borrowers build wealth — but they were actually just the opposite. A little-noticed explanation of the “Wealth Building” seminar strategy was contained in a lawsuit recently filed by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

According to the suit, 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.

After TWI’s article on Thursday, The Root headlined a post: “Tavis, You Got Some ‘Splainin To Do.” Jack & Jill Politics ran a photograph of Smiley standing a podium during Smiley’s “State of the Black Union” event this year, surrounded by Wells Fargo logos, and offered this:

He has never said jack about predatory lending, and now, we have an idea WHY.

Wells Fargo has also been hit with lawsuits from the city of Baltimore and the NAACP, alleging the banks targeted minority borrowers for higher cost loans. As TWI reported recently, lawsuits are winding their way through courts around the country, alleging discriminatory behaviors by banks and lenders. Wells has denied all charges in the suits, and has vowed to fight them.

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