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Sen. Robert Menendez, facing bribery charges, stumps bank CEOs by asking how much their firms paid in settlements for allegedly ripping off consumers

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), charged with bribery, gave Wall Street bank executives a pop quiz about their own corporate misbehavior that they all failed.

On Wednesday, at a congressional hearing, the embattled Menendez grilled Wall Street executives about how much money the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau ordered each of their firms to pay back to consumers for allegedly violating federal laws including charging illegal junk fees and opening fake customer accounts. Through his questioning, the senator was attempting to show that, contrary to what the bank CEOs argued, new financial regulations do benefit everyday customers.

Menendez directed his arrows at four retail bank CEOs—all of whom were unable to respond. He started with JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and moved down a long table asking Bank of America’s Brian Moynihan, Citigroup CEO Jane Fraser, and Wells Fargo CEO Charles Scharff how much each had “returned to customers in the form of redresses and payments at the direction of CFPB?”

Though the executives didn’t know the answer, the numbers are large, even for top Wall Street firms: $360 million for JPMorgan Chase, $819 million for Bank of America, $1 billion for Citigroup, and “over $2 billion” for Wells Fargo. All in all, it amounts to nearly $4 billion.

“It's amazing you don't know the number because they're not small in nature,” Menendez said. “It’s over $4 billion returned to hardworking consumers in the past dozen years.”

Menendez’s own adherence to the law happens to also be in question. In September, the Justice Department charged him and his wife Nadine with accepting bribes and allegedly using his Senate seat to improperly aid the Egyptian government. A raid of Menendez’s house turned up $100,000 in gold bars and bundles of cash stuffed into jacket pockets. Menendez pleaded not guilty.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is facing legal challenges of its own. The watchdog, created in 2011 in the wake of the 2008 Financial Crisis, is facing a Supreme Court case that could determine its future. The Community Financial Services Association of America, a trade organization that represents payday lenders, alleges the CFPB is unconstitutional because it is not subject to annual appropriations from Congress.

“The lawsuit currently before the Supreme Court over the CFPB's funding structure has the potential to upend every rule, guidance and order the CFPB has ever issued, tossing over a decade of consumer protection law out of the window,” Menendez said during the hearing to defend the CFPB. “That's not just harmful for consumers. I think it's dangerous to the financial system.”

The annual Senate hearing featured eight executives, including the four Menendez questioned, from the biggest financial institutions. Executives and legislators discussed new regulations that would require the big banks to keep larger capital reserves. The big banks argued the new rules would limit their ability to lend to lower and middle income buyers. In contrast, committee chair Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) disagreed and said any reduced lending would be due to banks prioritizing riskier investments that have higher returns.

“You'd rather fund risky trading and derivatives bets than boring bread and butter small business lending,” Brown said in his opening remarks.

The indicted Menendez also framed some of the banks’ unpopular practices, like overdraft fees, as a decision rather than a necessity.

“Charging the fees is a choice—one that disproportionately harms Black and brown communities, Menendez said. Getting rid of overdraft fees would “change the course of events for a significant part of [your] consumer base.”

Research points to the fact that overdraft fees disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic customers. A 2021 study found that Hispanic Americans paid $3.1 billion in overdraft fees a year Black Americans were hit with $1.4 billion in total. Another survey found they paid double the amount of fees than White people did.

Menendez commended Citibank’s Fraser for her company eliminating such fees in 2022 after government officials urged an end to the practice. Big banks like Citi also face competitive pressures from fintech startups and smaller banks, like Ally Bank, that offer bank accounts without overdraft fees.

“Is it fair to say that Citi is still a profitable bank?” Menendez asked Fraser.

“Yes, Senator,” Fraser replied.

Menendez pressed her further, asking if their elimination led to wholesale changes at the bank.

“Did [removing] overdraft fees upend your business model,” Menendez continued.

“No, Senator,” Fraser answered. “We work hard to protect our customers and make sure that they don't fall into overdraft.”

Menendez used this line of questioning to encourage Scharff, Dimon, and Moynihan to learn from Fraser and Citigroup. “I suggest you call Mr. Fraser after this hearing to figure out how you can still be able to eliminate the fees in their entirety and still run a profitable bank,” Menendez urged Scharff, Moynihan, and Dimon.

The other banks have made some steps to ease overdraft fees but haven’t done away with them completely. In 2021, JPMorgan Chase eliminated fees for overdrafts that were under $50. The new policy still led to an increase in revenue from overdraft fees, which rose 3% in 2022, a year after the policy was implemented, according to Bloomberg. Wells Fargo also loosened its rules without getting rid of the fees entirely, affording customers a 24-hour grace period to pay back any overdrafted accounts. Meanwhile, Bank of America cut its overdraft fees from $35 to $10.

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com

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