BY LISA O’DONNELL
D OBSON — In a big meeting room that once housed a discount grocery store, people sat around paper plates of sliced barbecue and bowls of banana pudding, wearing name tags bearing the names of churches.
Oak Grove Baptist Church. New Hope Church of Christ. Mount Airy Friends. Central United Methodist Church.
In all, about 10% of Surry County’s 260 churches sent representatives in May 2019 to the first in a series of meetings with the local faith community about the county’s opioid problem, one of the worst in North Carolina.
Mark Willis, a former Marine and federal agent, had called the meeting. Analytical, thorough and mission-oriented, he had been hired the year before by Surry County commissioners to be the county’s first opioid response director, charged with finding ways to curb the misuse of opioids among residents.
For months, Willis studied the issue from every angle, reading books and quizzing nearly 200 people from law enforcement, health care and social services from around the country.
He reemerged from this immersion convinced that the county’s high rate of opioid use resulted from a pervading sense of hopelessness that has taken seed in rural regions that are struggling to find their economic footing after years of building furniture, farming tobacco and weaving textiles into baby clothes and blankets. Those jobs have dwindled.
“I’m telling you, my theory is we have a crisis of hope,” Willis told the crowd of 100 people that day in May. “And who else is equipped to address a crisis of hope? It’s not the sheriff. It’s not social services. It’s not the court.
“Who can lend compassion to people who are lost? Who else can provide hope for people who are abandoned? Who else can bring people together?”
A woman sitting far from Willis whispered: “Jesus.”
Willis had another answer in mind.
“I’m looking at them,” he said.
Eight months and six meetings later, a call to action directed at the county’s vast faith community, has gone largely unanswered. Corralling people from many faiths and backgrounds to turn words into action proved more difficult than Willis anticipated. The idea was to first educate members of the faith community about opioids, let them hear about the alarming increase in the number of foster children, the lack of affordable housing and the overcrowded jail, then guide them toward some sort of action they could take. Whatever their idea, Willis promised to help set it in motion. He would write letters and make phone calls on their behalf, talk to the Surry County commissioners about funding, if needed.
But he was only one person. To make any sort of dent in the county’s opioid problem, he would need the collective manpower of the county’s faithful.
Across the South, communities ravaged by opioid misuse are tapping into this resource of people, hoping to draw on the spirit of compassion within churches to help quash an epidemic that resulted in 47,600 deaths in 2017. From 2014 to 2018, the number of opioid overdoses death in Surry County was 17.1 for every 100,000 residents, well above the 13.6 average for North Carolina as a whole
Though the number of fatalities in Surry has dropped from 55 in 2017 to 26 in 2019, John Shelton, the director of Surry County Emergency Services, said the decrease is due to the rising use of naloxone, an opioid overdose-reversal drug, not a drop in drug use. More first responders and caretakers are carrying the antidote.
The county responded to 347 overdose calls in 2019, Shelton recently said.
Michelle Mathis works with Olive Branch Ministry, a nonprofit organization based in Hickory that helps churches and other groups combat opioid misuse. Mathis attended almost every meeting of Surry County’s faith community.
Mathis said it makes sense that faith communities are called to act.
“Our education, our community, our sense of socialness centers around our faith group. When you move to the South, they don’t ask you what you do, they ask you if you’ve found a church. It’s a huge focus,” Mathis said. “Though there may not be a lot of money in our faith communities, there’s a lot of ‘people resource.’”
Willis had reason to feel optimistic after that first meeting in May. Attendance was good. People came away with lots of valuable information on such things as how to store their medications; how naloxone, often called by the brand name Narcan, works; the role of stigma; why police can’t search suspected drug houses without cause.
They asked lots of questions. They seemed energized.
Though attendance dwindled to about 40 people at the next meeting in June, Willis started steering them toward a goal, something they could do. It didn’t have to be an enormous undertaking.
“We crawl before we walk. We walk before we run,” Willis said. “Right now, we’re just sitting.”
They tossed around ideas — they could mentor foster children, advocate for more mental-health care options, convert parish halls into temporary shelters.
Finally, they landed on the idea of driving opioid abusers to treatment, connecting a dot that prevents many users, up to 25% in Surry County, from getting treatment.
The county is sprawling, with mountainous pockets that can isolate people. Many people with substance use disorder don’t have cars. They’re too broke to maintain them or have lost their license from driving infractions. The potential of a 60-mile round trip, much less a 5-mile trip, is daunting, if not impossible.
Outpatient treatment can be time-consuming, with some programs requiring three-hour sessions, three days a weeks for 13 weeks.
A reliable ride is crucial, said Emily McPeak, the executive director of Daymark Recovery Services in Mount Airy.
“We lose people to treatment because we can’t remove that barrier,” she said.
If the churches could provide drivers, McPeak assured them that she could find riders.
Not everyone was on board. That was to be expected from such a large contingent of people from a variety of faith backgrounds.
An alliance of churches in Jonesville and Elkin decided it would advocate for a drug court, which reduces or eliminates punishment for offenders who complete a recovery program. Judges shot down that idea in a meeting with the pastors, leaving them discouraged and unsure of their next step.
In August, Willis called another meeting of the faith community, this time to hammer out details for a transportation network, another step toward implementation. About 10 people attended.
Willis remained upbeat and praised them for their commitment.
“You don’t go to war with the army you want. You go to war with the army you have,” he told the crowd, quoting former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Over the previous weeks, he had crafted a set of protocols for what he hoped would be a fleet of volunteer drivers. It covered scheduling, privacy and security issues. He handed out his third draft of the protocols and a spreadsheet that would show how volunteers could sign up to drive.
He solicited feedback. Some concerns were raised: What if someone starts using while they’re in my car? Should we have Narcan in our car?
Willis smoothed the wrinkles. The plan was ready to roll.
A few pastors spread word among their congregations, calling for drivers.
No one signed up.
In late November, Willis reflected on the six-month effort to galvanize the faith community and turn talk into action. It could be, he opined, that people feel more trepidation about having someone addicted to drugs in their car than he realized (the protocols recommend that each vehicle has a driver and escort).
Erasing the stigma — an issue that came up over and over again the meetings — would require more work, more education.
“I’m not going to push it,” Willis said, sitting in his office in the old Surry County Courthouse. “I’ve tried to re-engage with pastors as to why we’re not getting a response. I’m pretty sure it’s human nature. But I won’t give up on it. Everything is in place.”
When it became clear that a volunteer-driven transportation network had stalled, Surry County commissioners asked Willis to research starting a county-run program that would support treatment providers and the county’s social services and health departments. That could cost taxpayer money.
Though the transportation effort was a setback, the series of meetings with the faith community did serve another purpose — it brought the issue of opioids out of the shadows and into the light of day. The faithful few who attended the meetings may have a better understanding of Narcan, for instance, which some people have criticized as a waste of public money.
Others who attended may take a hard look at their churches and wonder if they can show more compassion toward families with addicted loved ones.
Maybe they were moved by Teresa Brown, whose daughter’s addiction started with a prescription for pain pills.
“Not one time did anyone from my church reach out to me,” Brown said at the faith community’s final meeting in November.
She found support, instead, from the contemporary Christian music playing on 94.1 FM.
Mathis was encouraged that many pastors approached her about harm reduction, an approach to treating opioid misuse that tries to minimize the harmful effects of drugs, such as handing out clean needles, recognizing that people will continue to use drugs.
“I hope they took away the knowledge that this isn’t a moral failing but a brain disease and that it deserves the same dignity and respect that other diseases have,” Mathis said. “Some of them may have been introduced to the idea that we don’t have to have a theological conversion to serve someone, that we can let service speak for itself.”
Many clergy members, such as Sue Anne Morris, who pastors small churches in Pilot Mountain and Pinnacle, feel better-informed about opioids, and they can pass that knowledge on to their congregations.
“To talk about something, I need to know about it,” said Morris, among a handful of pastors who attended a majority of the meetings.
Her church in Pilot Mountain, Whitaker’s Chapel, has plans to turn a fellowship hall into a coffee house that will include information on drug-treatment options in Surry County.
Alex Martin, the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Mount Airy, has led funeral services for young people who have died of opioid overdoses. He said he needed to learn more about opioids so he could be a better pastor.
The meetings encouraged him to talk with his congregation about opioids.
“Every Sunday morning, we have a pastoral prayer, and I don’t think anybody feels comfortable saying their grandchild or their son is an abuser of alcohol or opioids. I’d love for us to get to a place where we could acknowledge that this is a real issue,” Martin said. “We’ve got work to do to be where we hope to be.”
There will be another community discussion on opioid misuse in February, this one organized by a network of United Methodist churches in Mount Airy. Willis has been invited to speak. He will limit his comments to the size and scope of opioid misuse in the county and won’t try to recruit drivers.
Willis still sees the county’s faith community as its largest resource of people power. And he remains convinced that it will play a big role in helping heal a county of 72,000 that has averaged roughly an overdose a day for the past two years.
“I’m certain,” he said, “that we can’t keep doing what we’re doing.”
An 18-year-old shot and seriously injured another, younger boy outside of a clothing store at Hanes Mall on Friday night, according to court documents and the Winston-Salem Police Department.
Isaac Banos-Salazar, 18, of Barney Avenue, opened fire with a Taurus 9mm handgun about 8:37 p.m. while standing outside the Forever 21 clothing store at the mall, according to police and court documents.
Banos-Salazar fired multiple rounds at Martin Quiterio Avila, seriously injuring him, according to a warrant for Salazar’s arrest. Police have not released Avila’s age, although he is referred to as a juvenile.
Officers found Avila lying on the sidewalk outside J.C. Penney’s, police said. Forsyth County EMS took Avila to an area hospital for treatment of serious but non-life threatening injuries.
Avila and Banos-Salazar know each other. On Friday night, Winston-Salem police Lt. Vince Rega said the shooting wasn’t random.
The shooting shattered several windows at Forever 21, but no one inside the store was shot or injured, police said. The store opened for business Saturday despite the damage.
Officers began searching the area around Hanes Mall, and found Banos-Salazar in one of the mall parking lots, police said. Officers took Banos-Salazar into custody at 8:54 p.m. near the Dave & Busters restaurant.
Police said they found the Taurus handgun on Banos-Salazar when they arrested him.
Banos-Salazar is charged with assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury, discharging a firearm into an occupied dwelling, carrying a concealed gun and discharging a firearm in city limits. He is being held under a $50,000 secured bond, and is described as a “danger to others” in a court document explaining the conditions surrounding his bail amount.
Friday night’s shooting is the second high-profile incident of gun violence at Hanes Mall in the last five months. On Aug. 6, 2019, prosecutors say 23-year-old Robert Granato shot and killed 32-year-old Julius Sampson Jr. in the parking lot of a restaurant at the mall.
Granato is charged with first-degree murder and, as of Saturday night, is being held in the Forsyth County Jail with a $503,000 bond.
Avila is one of numerous juveniles injured in gun violence in the last several months.
In July, Alberto Rios Navarrette, 5, was shot and killed when a group of teens drove through his apartment complex, randomly shooting into homes. Police arrested four teens, all age 17 or younger, in connection to Navarrette’s killing.
In August, three teens were shot and injured at a mobile home park on Winston-Salem’s southside. Police arrested 18-year-old Eduardo Ozuna in connection to that shooting.
On Oct. 17, officers found 17-year-old Jumil Dewann Robertson lying on the side of Argonne Boulevard, dead from a gunshot wound. Police have charged four people with murder in connection to Robertson’s death, two of which are juveniles.
About two weeks later, on Oct. 29, Jayden Maurice Jamison, 16, was shot and killed at the intersection of Pittsburg Avenue and Burton Street in a botched robbery. Police arrested Zacchaeus Semaj Williams, 17, on charges of murder in Jamison’s death.
On Dec. 16, Olajuwon Nasir Tillman, 15, was found shot in the head near the intersection of Wright Street and Main Street. Tillman was shot during a fight with a group of teens from his high school, according to his family and police. There have been no arrests.
Speaking at a press conference Tuesday, Winston-Salem Police Chief Catrina Thompson called for an end to gun violence, especially among the city’s teens. Thompson’s department seized 900 guns in 2019, and is on pace to seize more in 2020, she said. Regardless of how many guns police seize, Thompson said it will take a widespread effort to end violence among teens.
Thompson said gangs are playing a large role in driving this violence, because they’re providing what children aren’t getting from home and in their communities.
“We’re the biggest gang in this town,” Thompson said about the police department. “We need to take charge at instilling hope in our children.”
Most financial institutions have developed incentive programs, known as cross-selling, for branch employees to sell additional products to customers beyond the typical checking and savings account.
They could be a certificate of deposit, a money market account, auto loan or mortgage, insurance plan, wealth management advisement.
“Customers with multiple products are significantly more profitable,” according to a 2016 Harvard Law School Forum presentation.
It was the fee-income and bonus-generating elixir that Wells Fargo & Co. executives touted as a major factor in its dramatic revenue growth spurt — through acquisitions — from a West Coast and Midwest super-regional bank to one of four national too-big-to-fail financial institutions.
From 2010 to 2016, between 55% and 60% of Wells Fargo’s average annual profits were attributable to the products and services provided by its Community Bank retail unit.
But in a damning 100-page report released Thursday by the U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, cross-selling emerged as the devil in the details that cost 5,300 branch employees, their managers and middle managers their jobs between March 2011 and October 2016.
“The root cause of the sales practices misconduct problem was the Community Bank’s business model, which imposed intentionally unreasonable sales goals and unreasonable pressure on its employees to meet those goals and fostered an atmosphere that perpetuated improper and illegal conduct,” the OCC said.
Little of the OCC’s report represented new revelations, but rather regulatory confirmation that hundreds of thousands of Wells Fargo employees were affected by the high-pressure cross-selling tactics.
The fraudulent customer-account scandal that erupted in September 2016 eventually toppled Wells Fargo’s executive management team and most board members, and stained what had been a sterling reputation for ethical banking.
The bank acknowledged in 2017 the opening and issuing of at least 3.53 million unauthorized checking and savings accounts, debit cards and credit cards between 2009 and October 2016.
Although the bulk of the fraudulent accounts were established in California and Arizona, the bank has told The Charlotte Observer it cannot rule out that 38,722 unauthorized customer accounts were established in North Carolina and 23,327 in South Carolina.
The OCC said Community Bank business leaders and senior executives “presented a stark dilemma to employees every day” from 2002 to October 2016.
The Community Bank was led by Carrie Tolstedt, while chairman and chief executive John Stumpf applied a look-the-other-way oversight approach, the OCC said. He seldom discussed the high-pressure sales tactics with a compliant board even after employees directly alerted him to the fraud as early as 2013.
Stumpf served nearly seven years as chairman and nine years as chief executive before being allowed by the board to resign in October 2016, in large part to remain eligible for a golden parachute and deferred compensation worth tens of millions of dollars.
The goal of cross-selling is entrenching customers so deeply into accounts, whether they needed/wanted them or not, that they are less likely to move to a competitor, either out of perceived or real inconvenience, or out of loyalty.
The industry expectation has been three to five accounts per household, according to analysts.
Tolstedt expected, and Stumpf bragged about to analysts and investors, that Wells Fargo’s goal was for branch employees to establish up to eight accounts per household.
Part of Wachovia Corp. branch and wealth management employees’ introduction into Wells Fargo’s culture in 2009 was the indoctrination to cross-selling.
Some of those employees quit or burned out from the stress.
“The Community Bank’s business model was highly profitable because it resulted in a greater number of legitimate sales than would have been possible without the unreasonable sales goals and sales pressure,” the OCC said.
“Community Bank management intimidated and badgered employees to meet unattainable sales goals year after year, including by monitoring employees daily or hourly and reporting their sales performance to their managers, subjecting employees to hazing-like abuse, and threatening to terminate and actually terminating employees for failure to meet the goals.
“They could engage in sales practices misconduct — much of which was illegal — to meet their goals, or they could struggle to meet their goals and face adverse consequences, including losing their jobs.”
Cross-selling was perhaps the biggest benefactor at Wells Fargo when the bank acquired a collapsing Wachovia in October 2008.
Wells Fargo basically doubled in total assets size from the Wachovia takeover, taking its first Southeast and East Coast presence outside Florida.
It also gained access to Wachovia’s vaunted wealth management products that it could introduce to its West Coast and Midwest customers base.
Howard Atkins, its chief financial officer in 2009, told analysts that with the bank having the potential to serve one in three U.S. households, “revenue synergies from cross-selling are a huge opportunity, much like the Wells Fargo-Norwest merger 10 years ago.”
Cross-selling helped Wells Fargo set quarterly records for net income and fee income as the country recovered from the Great Recession of late 2007 to early 2011.
Stumpf described the bank’s cross-selling ability as a difference maker in the marketplace.
“To succeed at it (cross-selling), you have to do a thousand things right,” Stumpf said.
“It requires long-term persistence, significant investment in systems and training, proper team member incentives and recognition, (and) taking the time to understand your customers’ financial objectives.”
Stumpf, Tolstedt and Wells Fargo drew industry and media praise for how it grew into the nation’s third-largest bank.
The Harvard Law School Forum presentation cited how Fortune magazine applauded Wells Fargo for “a history of avoiding the rest of the industry’s dumbest mistakes” during the Great Recession.
American Banker called Wells Fargo “the big bank least tarnished by the scandals and reputational crises.” It named Stumpf as its Banker of the Year in 2013, while Tolstedt received its most powerful woman in banking honors.
“Tolstedt’s compensation awards explicitly took into account the Community Bank’s achievement of record cross-sell ratios,” according to the OCC. She received tens of millions of dollars in compensation as a result.
By 2013 some Wells Fargo branch employees were trying to inform senior executives, particularly Stumpf, of the sales pressures they were facing.
The OCC listed in its complaint several high-pressure sales tactics stressed, if not required, in order to generate service fees. They included:
The OCC said that from 2006 through 2014, total (internal) EthicsLine complaints received from employees increased year-over-year.
One employee complaint example cited by the OCC was addressed to Tolstedt:
“Surely, you must be aware that you will reach a sales number to be achieved that will force the staff to cheat to obtain it. You have reached that point.”
“(T)he noose around our necks ha(s) tightened: we have been told we must achieve the required solutions goals or (we) will be terminated. This type of practice guarantees high turnover, a managerial staff of bullying taskmasters, (and) bankers who are really financial molesters (and) cheaters.”
Another example cited by the OCC:
“Another employee wrote to the CEO’s office and to a senior leader in the Community Bank in 2013 that “I was in the 1991 Gulf War. ... This is sad and hard for me to say, but I had less stress in the 1991 Gulf War than working for Wells Fargo.”
The OCC said that from December 2013 through September 2015, the bank “received at least 5,000 customer complaints related to lack of consent” on accounts opened in their name.
By 2013, the Los Angeles Times reported on what appeared to be isolated incidents of fraudulently established customer accounts that resulted in the firing of about 30 employees.
“We found a breakdown in a small number of our team members,” according to the bank. “Our team members do have goals. And sometimes they can be blinded by a goal.”
Stumpf and other executives were told by the OCC at that time to resolve the customer account issues and to inform the board of the seriousness of the problem.
However, Stumpf decided the fraudulent account issues weren’t a big enough concern for the board to declare them as material, which would have generated a warning to investors in regulatory filings.
Stumpf told the U.S. Senate Finance Committee that he did not believe the fraudulent accounts would lead to a large financial risk.
Once the scandal became public in September 2016, bank executives placed the blame on what they termed rogue branch employees.
“The 1 percent that did it wrong, who we fired, terminated, in no way reflects our culture nor reflects the great work the other vast majority of the people do,” the bank said. “That’s a false narrative.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, and a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, declared in September 2016 that Stumpf showed “gutless leadership” by emphasizing that 5,300 retail employees, managers, middle managers and an area president were fired for their fraudulent cross-selling actions.
“This isn’t right,” Warren said. “The only way that Wall Street will change is when executives face jail time when they preside over massive fraud.”
Stumpf resigned shortly after the committee hearing when the board recognized he was too attached to the root of the scandal to be the one to resolve it.
Tolstedt, who was allowed to take leave shortly before the scandal surfaced, was retroactively fired with cause by the board.
The OCC said that “everything that (it) learned in the course of its investigation of the bank’s sales practices misconduct regarding the root cause, scope, duration and severity of the problem, as well as the inadequacy of the controls, was available to respondents long before September 2016.”
“It took a massive failure on the part of the senior management of the Community Bank, the Law Department and Audit for the sales practices misconduct problem to become as severe and pervasive as it was and last as long as it did.”
Stumpf told the OCC during his recent testimony before the agency that “employees did all they could to complain about the unreasonable sales goals to bank senior leadership in numerous ways over many years, by calling the EthicsLine, sending emails, holding protests and approaching newspapers.”
“He further stated that the senior leadership team, and not the employees, is to blame for the bank not moving fast enough to address the sales practices misconduct problem.”
Other bank executives who reached settlements with the OCC agreed that employees complained about pressure and “gaming” (customer accounts) for many years.
Wells Fargo agreed in September 2016 to pay a combined $185 million in fines to resolve regulatory complaints.
Overall, Wells Fargo has agreed to pay more than $4 billion to date to settle various regulatory and legal disputes since the fall of 2016.
In April 2017, in the first of several company attempts at a mea culpa, Wells Fargo’s board officially placed the bulk of the blame for the scandal on Tolstedt and Stumpf.
The board said its investigation identifies cultural, structural and leadership issues as root causes of improper sales practices.
Tolstedt and other community bank leaders “were unwilling to change the sales model or recognize it as the root cause of the problem.”
Altogether, the bank clawed back $69 million in compensation from Stumpf and $67 million from Tolstedt.
The bank has paid $42.9 million in customer refunds as of November.
On Thursday, OCC regulators ordered a $17.5 million fine against Stumpf. He agreed to a prohibition order, which includes a lifetime ban from the banking industry.
The largest fine of $25 million was assessed against Tolstedt, in part because she has declined to cooperate with the OCC.
Altogether, the OCC issued fines totaling $58.5 million to eight former Wells Fargo executives.
Five executives, including Tolstedt, received notices of charges. It is the first time federal regulators have issued individuals fines related to the scandal.
Tony Plath, a retired finance professor at UNC Charlotte, said the OCC’s fines represent “a slap on the wrist” given the fact the executives “knowingly harmed their customers, to whom they held a fiduciary responsibility, in a variety of creative ways, for their own personal and professional gain.”
Plath said the executives’ actions created “cultural damage they caused to a fine financial institution, turning a great bi-coastal bank franchise into a dumpster fire of repeated strategic customer abuse, and the billions in lost shareholder value, and the reputation damage they caused the entire banking industry.”
“Tolstedt and Stumpf are emblematic of everything that’s wrong with crony capitalism, and history needs to judge — and treat — them accordingly if our system of free markets and free enterprise is to survive into the next generation,” Plath said.