May 31, 2017 at 3:27 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Has Wells Fargo learned from pipeline, prison controversies?
Wells Fargo, gay news, Washington Blade

E.J. Bernacki, Wells Fargo’s Vice President for Corporate Responsibility Communications, who’s gay, said the company is providing funding to a range of LGBT groups this Pride season. (Photo courtesy Linkedin)

The lending practices of Wells Fargo & Company, one of the nation’s largest banks, came under fire by a group of local LGBT activists in early May when they demanded that D.C.’s Capital Pride Alliance drop the bank as one of its corporate sponsors.

The group No Justice No Pride pointed out that Wells Fargo is providing financing for the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, which is being opposed by environmentalists and Native American tribes.

Members of the group said Wells Fargo also continues to finance at least two companies that operate private prisons that the ACLU has said have a history of mistreating inmates, including undocumented immigrants.

No Justice No Pride members argued at a Capital Pride Alliance board meeting on May 8 that LGBT people were among the indigenous peoples being negatively impacted by the pipeline construction. The group’s members said LGBT people, especially transgender women of color, were also among those being mistreated in private prisons to which Wells Fargo was lending money.

Capital Pride officials promised to reassess their criteria for accepting corporate sponsors. But they said arrangements for this year’s Capital Pride parade and festival set for June 10-11 were too far along for them to make changes in corporate sponsors at this time.

Although Capital Pride’s president, Bernie Delia, noted that Wells Fargo has a good record on LGBT issues, the mega bank’s policies and actions on LGBT matters were largely overlooked in the discussion over its lending practices.

Among the developments mostly overlooked was that the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s annual Corporate Equality Index has consistently given Wells Fargo a perfect 100 percent rating on its personnel policies pertaining to LGBT employees.

In its rating, HRC Foundation notes that Wells Fargo & Company fully complies with or carries out nine specific criteria related to LGBT employees, including a non-discrimination policy that covers sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, full benefits for employees’ same-sex partners, and a transgender-inclusive health insurance plan that covers hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery.

E.J. Bernacki, Wells Fargo’s gay Vice President for Corporate Responsibility Communications, told the Washington Blade this week that the company adopted a sexual orientation non-discrimination policy in 1987, five years before the HRC Foundation began its Corporate Equality Index ratings.

He said Wells Fargo adopted its non-discrimination policy for transgender employees in 2004, long before most other private sector employers adopted such a policy.

Bernacki said Wells Fargo passes with flying colors the Corporate Equality ratings criteria calling on employers to welcome and nurture LGBT employee resource groups and that they “positively engage the external LGBT community.”

He points out that Wells Fargo has 50 chapters and more than 11,000 members in its LGBT employee organization called the Pride Team Member Network, in its offices and banks across the country. Bernacki is a member of the chapter in San Francisco at the bank’s international headquarters, he told the Blade.

According to Bernacki, during the 2017 LGBT Pride season, Wells Fargo will be highlighting its ongoing financial support for a number of national LGBT groups, including the Trevor Project, which provides suicide prevention programs for LGBT youth; the LGBT seniors group SAGE; the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, which advocates for LGBT students in public schools; and the Point Foundation, which provides scholarships and mentoring for college-bound students.

These four groups were among a dozen national LGBT organizations that received a total of more than $3.5 million from Wells Fargo in 2016 and about the same amount in 2015 Bernacki said.

“These are just a few examples of the community groups Wells Fargo supports – both financially and with volunteerism – and we hope the stories from our campaign will inspire more companies and individuals to join us,” he said.

Concerning the issues surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline, Bernacki said he believes Wells Fargo has learned from concerns raised by Native American tribes and advocacy groups representing them.

The underground pipeline, which is mostly completed, is planned to transport 470,000 barrels of crude oil a day across four states, from North Dakota to a terminal in Illinois, where it is to be shipped to refineries.

Construction on the section of the pipeline closest to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation drew strong opposition from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and its supporters, including environmentalists and advocates for indigenous peoples. Although the construction sites were just outside the tribe’s reservation, Sioux officials said the U.S. government took the land from them illegally in 1868 and that the pipeline threatened their water supplies in the event of a leak.

They considered the site of the construction to be on sacred grounds that would be desecrated by the installation of the pipeline.

Bernacki said Wells Fargo was one of 17 banks that provided financing to a Texas-based company called Energy Transfer Partners and another company, Sunoco Logistics, that were involved in building the pipeline.

“Our financing was less than five percent,” he said.

“We learned a lot about the potential impact on indigenous communities and we have built additional safeguards into our own due diligence policies to recognize that and to do our very best to ensure that we don’t find ourselves in this kind of situation again,” Bernacki said.

Concerning Wells Fargo’s financing of private prisons he said the bank has provided financing for two companies that operate private prisons, CoreCivic, formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America, and GEO Group. They are the nation’s largest two firms operating private prisons, including immigration detention centers.

“All I can really say about that is they are among thousands of companies and hundreds of different sectors that we bank,” said Bernacki.

“And while we respect the seriousness of the issues and the debate over our criminal justice system and how criminal justice is performed, we don’t take positions on public policy issues that don’t directly affect our ability to serve our customers and our team members,” he said.

“So unfortunately that’s all I have to say on the private prison issue,” he added.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

  • “we don’t take positions on public policy issues that don’t directly affect our ability to serve our customers and our team members”

    So in other words, they’re willing to invest their money just about anywhere, and they still have the audacity to talk about their “corporate responsibility.”

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