Widespread problems with how OSHA investigated Wells Fargo workers’ whistleblower retaliation complaints were found in reviews of the cases obtained by Bloomberg Environment.
Among the problems with the cases filed from 2010 through 2016 were that investigators often failed to interview Wells Fargo workers who filed complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and incorrectly deciding which federal laws applied to the complaints.
Bloomberg Environment obtained the documents through a Freedom of Information Act request.
While OSHA’s primary responsibility is protecting workers from safety and health hazards, Congress also granted the agency the duty of handling whistleblower retaliation complaints covering a wide-range of issues, including finance and food safety, across the government.
The in-house OSHA review was prompted by the fallout from Wells Fargo’s Sept. 8, 2016 agreement with federal and state financial regulators to pay a $185 million fine. That penalty resulted from investigations into Wells Fargo’s consumer fraud.
Allegations that OSHA hadn’t thoroughly investigated Wells Fargo whistleblower complaints—some about Wells Fargo’s “cross-selling” practices—resulted in the Labor Department ordering OSHA in September 2016 to review its handling of the complaints.
As a result of the reviews—completed several months ago—OSHA has enacted numerous changes, a senior Labor Department official, who was only authorized to speak anonymously on the topic, told Bloomberg Environment.
The agency is stressing greater oversight of whistleblower investigations by regional and national offices to identify when required information is left out of cases and when inquiries aren’t meeting expected timelines, the official said.
Training on whistleblower complaints related to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was emphasized, the official said.
The agency also is trying to reduce mistakes complainants could make when filing a case, the official said. For example, the agency’s online complaint form helps guide people through the filing process and identify if another agency should handle the case.
The official didn’t comment on whether the findings would lead to an increase in budget and personnel for OSHA whistleblower enforcement in the president’s proposed fiscal 2019 budget. For fiscal 2018, the House and Senate have proposed $17.5 million for the whistleblower programs.
The review, which began in October 2016, identified 47 closed cases and 48 open cases involving Wells Fargo whistleblowers.
Of the closed cases, there was no record that investigators interviewed the worker filing the complaint in 18 of the cases, the review found.
In the 26 cases where workers were interviewed, the review found shortcomings in nine interviews. In one case, the worker was interviewed four years after contacting OSHA.
In 23 percent of the cases, OSHA didn’t investigate the cases using all the federal statutes that could have applied to the complaint, the review said.
However, the review turned back criticism that OSHA should have identified a trend among the Wells Fargo whistleblowers cases and alerted financial regulators. The Wells Fargo complainants’ allegations “varied considerably,” including workplace safety concerns, and were spread across the country and investigated by different agency offices, the review said.
The agency is working to improve communication among OSHA’s 10 regional offices that could enable the agency to identify new trends, the Labor Department official said.
The inquiry also found problems in OSHA Region 9, headquartered in San Francisco, where Wells Fargo also has its corporate offices.
The regional office “experienced the perfect storm,” the report said.
That office struggled with an “untenable caseload,” investigators with little or no experience, and two investigators who were fired for lack of performance. Also problematic were the lack of an assistant regional administrator for the whistleblower program and senior management turnover.