What we know about SPLC’s firing of co-founder Morris Dees
Nate Chute, USA Today Network
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Southern Poverty Law Center President Richard Cohen said in a statement Friday he has asked the board of the troubled organization to “to immediately launch a search for an interim president in order to give the organization the best chance to heal” and took responsibility for problems that have swept out the senior leadership of the group in just a week.
Cohen, who has worked at the SPLC since 1986 and served as president since 2003, said in the statement that “we’ll emerge stronger” after an audit of the organization’s practices by Tina Tchen, a former White House official and Chicago-based lawyer.
“Given my long tenure as the SPLC president, however, I do not think I should be involved in that process beyond cooperating with Tina, her team, and the board in any way that may be helpful,” the statement said. Whatever problems exist at the SPLC happened on my watch, so I take responsibility for them.”
Cohen’s statement follow’s last week termination of SPLC co-founder Morris Dees. Cohen last week said Dees failed to adhere to the organization’s “values,” hinting broadly at misconduct. The Los Angeles Times reported the resignation of an assistant legal director in recent weeks over race and gender equity concerns may have acted as a catalyst for Dees’ removal.
On Thursday, Rhonda Brownstein, SPLC legal director and a member of its senior leadership staff, also resigned, a source familiar with the matter confirmed to the Advertiser.
The center has grown from a three-man legal organization to a mammoth, $450 million advocacy organization with offices across the Southeast.
Since Dees’ termination, the Advertiser has reached out to more than a dozen current or former center employees. The majority either did not return comment or declined to speak, but four former employees agreed to outline their experiences to a reporter.
All four employees requested anonymity due to the center’s reputation in the progressive nonprofit and political realms, where all continue to work.
Several of the employees described staff turnover as high and a “toxic” workplace riddled with conflicting priorities and inter-office politics.
All four independently spoke of racial equity concerns in senior leadership, describing a disproportionate amount of people of color serving in entry-level administrative positions compared to the rest of the workforce.
A review of the center’s 2019 board and senior staff reveals that senior leadership at SPLC remains largely white.
Dees had weathered criticism for decades, with a 1994 Montgomery Advertiser series citing concerns about racial discrimination against back employees. Staffers at the time “accused Morris Dees, the center’s driving force, of being a racist and black employees have ‘felt threatened and banded together.’” Dees strenuously denied the accusation at the time.
Critics of the center in recent years have drawn attention to SPLC’s behemoth fundraising mechanism.
“His obsession has really been with fundraising,” said Stephen Bright, a Yale law professor and former director of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta.
“And the fundraising really promotes him. It’s brought in millions and millions and millions of dollars. It’s enabled him in some ways to overcome whatever bad press he got. When you’re sending out mail to hundreds of thousands of people, most of them don’t live in Alabama. The bad press just didn’t compare to the fundraising appeals. Morris is a genius of fundraising solicitations. He’s the king of junk mail. He did it better than anybody else.”
Bright, a longtime critic of Dees, said the SPLC continues to do good work but, “If you have $430 million, do you really need people to give you more money at that point?”
Dees personally raked in nearly $5.7 million in compensation since 2001 according to a review of publicly available tax documents.
Over the years, the SPLC has continued to amass massive funds from donors amid differing levels of scrutiny. The nonprofit has hundreds of employees and offices in four states.
Its $450 million coffers easily dwarf other civil rights groups — such as the Equal Justice Initiative and the NAACP — during the same time frame. The Montgomery-based EJI had about $57 million in net assets at that time and the NAACP had about $3.8 million.
Cohen in the statement called it an “incredible honor” to serve. According to a biography on the SPLC website, Cohen joined the center as legal director in 1986 after practicing law in Washington D.C. He was later promoted to vice president of SPLC programs before he was named as president in 20
“I hope everyone participates in the transformational process that Tina will be leading with an open heart and an open mind,” the statement said. “And I hope that everyone will let the process play out before jumping to conclusions. We can’t be calling for a review and simultaneously casting blame before that review is complete.”
Contributing: Andrew Yawn and Brian Edwards
Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/03/22/southern-poverty-law-center-president-richard-cohen-step-down/3251764002/