Bailed-out Wells Fargo plans Vegas casino junkets

February 3, 2009 12:00:00 AM PST
Wells Fargo & Co., which received $25 billion in taxpayer bailout money, is planning a series of corporate junkets to Las Vegas casinos this month. Wells Fargo, once among the nation's top writers of subprime mortgages, has booked 12 nights at the Wynn Las Vegas and its sister hotel, the Encore Las Vegas beginning Friday, said Wynn spokeswoman Michelle Loosbrock. The hotels will host the annual conference for company's top mortgage officers.

The conference is a Wells Fargo tradition. Previous years have included all-expense-paid helicopter rides, wine tasting, horseback riding in Puerto Rico and a private Jimmy Buffett concert in the Bahamas for more than 1,000 employees and guests.

"I was amazed with just how lavish it was," said Debra Rickard, a former Wells Fargo mortgage employee from Colorado who attended the events regularly until she left the company in 2004. "We stayed in top hotels, the entertainment was just unbelievable, and there were awards -- you got plaques or trophies."

While the nation's recession has led other banks, such as Bank of America, to cancel employee recognition outings, Wells Fargo has not.

"Recognition events are still part of our culture," spokeswoman Melissa Murray said. "It's really important that our team members are still valued and recognized."

Corporate retreats have attracted criticism since the bank bailout last fall. Congress scolded insurance giant American International Group Inc. for spending $440,000 on spa treatments for executives just days after the company took $85 billion from taxpayers.

AIG has since canceled all such outings.

Beginning Feb. 25, Wells Fargo's insurance division is hosting a 40-person team meeting at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Murray did not immediately have details about the size or cost of the events or what was planned.

In previous years, top loan officers were treated to performances by Cher, Jay Leno and Huey Lewis. One year, the company provided fortune tellers and offered camel rides, Rickard said. Every night when employees returned to their rooms, there was a new gift on their pillows, she said.

Wells Fargo Chairman Richard Kovacevich has traditionally greeted every employee personally when they arrived.

Rooms at the Wynn and the Encore are consistently among the most expensive in Las Vegas. The $2.3 billion Encore opened in December. Its decor includes a 27-foot Asian dragon made from 90,000 Swarovski crystals and artwork by Colombian artist Fernando Botero. One of the restaurants features Frank Sinatra's 1953 Oscar.

Both properties have high-end retail stores, including Manolo Blahnik at Wynn and Chanel at Encore.

On Monday, Wells Fargo said it would pay a quarterly dividend of $371 million to the Treasury Department as part of the bailout. The government invested billions in the company to help shore up the banking industry.

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Associated Press writer Oskar Garcia in Las Vegas contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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