SYDNEY (Reuters) - An Australian regulator filed a lawsuit against No. 2 lender Westpac Banking Corp over a financial planner it alleges gave poor advice for years, upping its scrutiny of a sector already under fire amid an embarrassing public inquiry.
Australia’s A$5 billion ($3.7 billion) financial planning sector has provided some of the most damning evidence at an inquiry into finance sector misconduct, ordered by the government after a string of banking scandals including fraud.
Amid the backlash, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) on Friday said it filed a Federal Court lawsuit alleging that Westpac was liable for a financial planner in its employment failing to act in the best interests of customers, as well as for the planner’s inappropriate financial advice and failure to prioritise the client interests.
Court documents made public by ASIC showed the regulator was seeking fines plus declarations the bank failed to do everything necessary to provide financial services “efficiently, honestly and fairly”.
ASIC said the country’s Corporations Act came with a maximum penalty of A$1 million ($746,400) for each wrongdoing, without specifying how many instances of wrongdoing its lawsuit alleged.
Westpac said it was reviewing the case and would cooperate with the regulator to resolve proceedings as soon as possible.
It said it identified compliance concerns with, and fired, the planner in question in 2014, then “proactively initiated remediation to identify and compensate affected customers”.
The year-long inquiry into the financial sector, called a Royal Commission, has heard evidence of fraud and allegations of board-level misconduct since it began in February, including misleading a regulator about allowing financial planners to charge for advice without giving it.
The chairman, chief executive and several directors of the country’s biggest wealth manager, AMP Ltd, have stood down over accusations of financial planner wrongdoing, while the country’s third-largest lender, Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd, has said it would stop paying planners bonuses for selling its products.
The former Westpac planner has not appeared at the Royal Commission. However, another parliamentary hearing in 2017 heard the planner charged 177 clients over six years without providing advice.
While the latest lawsuit stemmed from one former planner, the regulator said the bank breached part of the law “which requires Westpac to do all things necessary to ensure that the financial services covered by its licence are provided efficiently, honestly and fairly, and to comply with financial services laws”.
The lawsuit is the regulator’s second against Westpac in a year. Last month, the bank was cleared by a court of allegations levelled by ASIC that it rigged a key rate to boost profit.
Australian bank shares have been hammered by the Royal Commission, losing more than A$50 billion in market value since hearings began.
On Friday, Westpac shares closed 2 percent higher along with the broader market, but are still down 11 percent since the inquiry started.
The regulator said the matter would have its first court hearing on July 19.
($1 = 1.3390 Australian dollars)
Reporting by Byron Kaye and Paulina Duran; Editing by Stephen Coates and Christopher Cushing