Wells Fargo CEO Tim Sloan fired back at New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a contentious hearing in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, after the freshman legislator accused the bank of "financing the caging of children" and suggested it should bear financial liability for everything from oil spills to climate change.
Ocasio-Cortez's inquiries come as activists increasingly seek to "deplatform" political opponents by cutting off their funding from banks and other financial services providers -- a concerted effort that conservatives and libertarians have said threatens free speech.
House Financial Services Committee Chairman Maxine Waters, D-Calif., brought Sloan before the panel Tuesday as part of a broad, four-hour inquiry into widely reported fraudulent misconduct in recent years by Wells Fargo employees. But in questioning Sloan, who faced bipartisan criticism during the hearing, Ocasio-Cortez, a self-described Democratic socialist, quickly went much further.
"Why was the bank involved in the caging of children and financing the caging of children to begin with?" Ocasio-Cortez asked at one point, in an apparent reference to the Trump administration's zero-tolerance immigration policy, which resulted in increased separations of parents suspected of criminal activity from the minors who accompanied them.
The White House has pointed out that images widely circulated on social media showing migrant children in large, fenced-off detention rooms were taken during the Obama administration.
Sloan responded simply, "I don't know how to answer that question, because we weren't."
"You were financing, involved in debt financing in CoreCivic and GEO Group, correct?" Ocasio-Cortez pressed, referring to two companies that manage private detention and rehabilitation facilities, on her way to implying that tort liability should be drastically expanded.
In a statement to Fox News, a CoreCivic spokesperson rejected Ocasio-Cortez's insinuations: "We don’t provide housing for any children who aren’t under the supervision of a parent," the spokesperson said. "We also don’t operate shelters for unaccompanied minors, nor do we operate border patrol facilities. Any assertions to the contrary are patently false and misinformed."
Added a GEO Group spokesperson, to Fox News: "This is a deliberate lie driven by an agenda aimed at abolishing ICE, knowing that we have nothing to do with passing, setting, or advocating for or against immigration laws or policies. Our company has never managed facilities that house unaccompanied minors, and we have played no role with policies related to the separation of families. In fact, our Karnes Family Residential Center allows for families to be cared for together and was established by the Obama Administration in 2014. The contractual services we provide for ICE today are no different than the services we provided for eight years under the Obama Administration.”
"For a period of time, we were involved in financing one of the firms, we are not anymore. I'm not familiar with the specific assertion you are making. We were not involved in that," Sloan said.
Ocasio-Cortez went on to ask whether the bank was "responsible for the damages incurred by climate change" because of its financing of fossil fuel companies, such as reinvestment costs.
"I don't know how you'd calculate that," Sloan retorted.
The progressive firebrand from New York, pressing on, raised the prospect that Wells Fargo could face liability from any environmental disaster involving the Dakota Access pipeline, which runs 1,200 miles through the Dakotas, Iowa and Illinois.
Wells Fargo was one of more than a dozen financial institutions to contribute financing to the project, which has been attacked by its critics as environmentally unsafe and an encroachment upon Native American lands. Conservatives have maintained that the project has significant economic benefits.
"Hypothetically, if there was a leak from the Dakota Access pipeline, why shouldn't Wells Fargo pay for the cleanup of it, since they paid for the construction of the pipeline itself?" Ocasio-Cortez asked. (In 2017, the Dakota Access pipeline and a feeder line leaked more than 100 gallons of oil in North Dakota in separate incidents in March as crews prepared the disputed $3.8 billion pipeline for operation.)
"Because we don't operate the pipeline," Sloan responded, apparently surprised by the question. "We provide financing to the company that's operating the pipeline. "Our responsibility is to ensure that at the time that we make that loan, that that customer -- we have a group of people in Wells Fargo, including an environmental oversight group."
Ocasio-Cortez interrupted to ask why Wells Fargo would consider lending money to a project criticized widely on environmental grounds.
"Again, the reason that we were one of the 17 or 19 banks that financed that, was because our team reviewed the environmental impact," Sloan said. "And we concluded it was a risk we were willing to take."
Concluding the hearing, Waters suggested that Wells Fargo should be broken up. Waters also asked Sloan if the bank had become "too big to manage."
“This hearing has revealed Wells Fargo has failed to clean up its act, it’s too big to manage and the steps regulators have taken to date are wholly inadequate,” Waters said.
Republicans, too, laid into Sloan, although they did not go as far as Waters or Ocasio-Cortez.
“Each time a new scandal breaks, Wells Fargo promises to get to the bottom of it. It promises to make sure it doesn’t happen again, but then a few months later, we hear about another case of dishonest sales practices or gross mismanagement,” said North Carolina Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, a Republican.
“Every single member of this committee has constituents in their state who were impacted by Wells Fargo,” he added. “Our constituents should be able to trust their own bank.”
Fox News' Brooke Singman contributed to this report.