As the Southern Poverty Law Center implodes over accusations of racial discrimination and sexual harassment, its legion of critics wants answers and a swift burial of the embattled organization’s status as the nation’s judge and jury on hate.
Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, took the lead with a letter to the Internal Revenue Service requesting an investigation into the tax-exempt status of the incongruously wealthy nonprofit group, which he blasted as a “racist and sexist slush fund devoted to defamation.”
“I’ve long been troubled by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s activities, which are centered on serial defamation of its opponents, not on civil rights litigation, as its founding charter says,” Mr. Cotton told The Washington Times.
“Obviously, the revelations that the Southern Poverty Law Center has engaged in systematic racial discrimination and sexual harassment at the highest levels is very troubling as well,” he said. “I think it bears on whether they should have tax-exempt status under our laws and benefit from the taxpayer subsidy.”
In addition, 60 of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s favorite center-right targets called in an open letter Wednesday for the organization to release emails reportedly from fed-up staffers in a revolt that led to the toppling last month of the progressive monolith’s entrenched leadership.
The letter also asked media outlets and corporations once again to quit relying uncritically on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “hate” designations, which lump leading Christian and conservative organizations such as the Family Research Council with racist outfits such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nation.
“SPLC has lost all credibility,” said the letter, led by Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. “We call on all media, corporations, social media companies, and financial institutions to immediately stop relying on their discredited and partisan ‘hate’ and ‘extremist’ lists.”
Still unclear is whether the scandal will prompt a second look from the center’s prominent liberal donors, including Apple CEO Tim Cook and celebrity couple George and Amal Clooney, as well as whether the Southern Poverty Law Center will ever regain its disputed yet prestigious niche as America’s hate arbiter.
“How does an organization dedicated to ‘fighting hate and bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society’ ignore the signs of hate and bigotry within its own culture?” consultant Martin Levine asked in Nonprofit Quarterly. “How did its professional and board leadership not know that things were toxic enough to drive many staff to flee for safer places to work?”
The Obama connection
The center has sought to repair the damage. On Tuesday, Karen Baynes-Dunning, a former juvenile court judge and board member, was named interim president and CEO, making her the first black leader of the civil rights group, which has been run for decades by Morris Dees and Richard Cohen, both of whom are white.
“Our employees deserve a workplace that reflects our highest values, and we will ensure that it happens,” the Southern Poverty Law Center said in a Tuesday statement. “The decision to name Karen as interim president is a critical step in that process.”
Conducting an “external review” of the center’s practices is Tina Tchen, onetime chief of staff to first lady Michelle Obama, who will “advise us on workplace culture issues,” Bryan Fair, board chairman of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in the statement.
“Tina’s evaluation will continue, and we’re committed to enacting long-lasting changes following her recommendations,” Mr. Fair said. “Our employees deserve a workplace that reflects our highest values, and we will ensure that it happens.”
Her hiring set off red flags on the right. It was Ms. Tchen who contacted Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx on behalf of “Empire” star Jussie Smollett in an effort to move the case to the FBI. All charges stemming from Mr. Smollett’s purported staging of a Jan. 29 hate crime in Chicago were dropped last week.
“This choice raises serious concerns about the neutrality of the investigation,” conservative groups said in their letter. “And the choice appears particularly problematic given Tchen recently making headlines for interfering with the Chicago Police Department’s Jussie Smollett investigation.”
Mr. Cotton cited another issue: Bringing in Ms. Tchen has fueled speculation of a powerhouse alliance between the Obama camp and a progressive organization with an endowment of nearly a half-billion dollars.
“It really has become little more than a left-wing slush fund, and now that Mrs. Obama’s former chief of staff, Jussie Smollett’s legal fixer, has been brought on board, it raises genuine suspicions over whether the Southern Poverty Law Center will be even more politicized and will expressly be supporting Democrats in the next election,” Mr. Cotton said.
As a 501(c)(3) organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center is barred from backing political candidates. On the other hand, the group could “refocus some of their funds into a 501(c)(4) as opposed to what they are now,” Mr. Cotton said. “C4s have looser rules to engage in political activities.”
‘Bolt out of the blue’
Even as it won plaudits on the left for fighting “hate,” the Southern Poverty Law Center has been criticized for years over its evolution from stalwart KKK scourge to fundraising machine. Articles on the right and left have pilloried the center for its direct-mail pleas whipping up fears of Klan and Nazi uprisings as it built what Politico called its “sleek six-story headquarters,” also known as the “Poverty Palace,” in Montgomery, Alabama.
Such blasts bounced off the center for years — until they didn’t. On March 14, Mr. Dees, 82, who founded the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1971, was fired. Mr. Cohen announced his own resignation March 23, and legal director Rhonda Brownstein stepped down the same day.
“It was a bolt out of the blue,” said Chris Gacek, Family Research Council senior fellow for regulatory affairs. “It’s a Thursday afternoon, and suddenly Dees is out. In a million years, I never would have expected that to happen, because they had weathered the storm so many times.”
The edifice began crumbling with the departure of senior attorney Meredith Horton, who was the organization’s highest-ranked black woman. She cited in an internal memo “the hardships women and employees of color faced at SPLC,” according to the Alabama Political Reporter.
Her memo, which has not been released, touched off a revolt by staffers, who reportedly sent two emails listing demands and grievances, including the allegation that the Southern Poverty Law Center covered up sexual harassment complaints against Mr. Dees and retaliated against women who brought the accusations.
Mr. Dees has denied the claims, but the issue resurfaced in a March 21 essay in The New Yorker by former Southern Poverty Law Center writer Bob Moser, who said incoming female staffers were “warned by their new colleagues about Dees’s reputation for hitting on young women.”
He also said that “nothing was more uncomfortable than the racial dynamic,” with white employees working in professional roles and most of the nearly 100 black employees working as support staff.
“The work could be meaningful and gratifying,” said Mr. Moser, who was at the center from 2001 to 2004. “But it was hard, for many of us, not to feel like we’d become pawns in what was, in many respects, a highly profitable scam.”
Four former employees “spoke about racial equity concerns in senior leadership,” according to a report this week in the Montgomery Advertiser, which was nominated for a 1995 Pulitzer Prize for a separate expose on “questionable management practices and self-interest” at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“All four former employees requested anonymity due to the center’s sterling reputation in the progressive nonprofit and political realms, where all continue to work,” the Advertiser wrote. “Several of the former employees described high staff turnover and a ‘toxic’ workplace riddled with conflicting priorities and interoffice politics.”
The nonprofit boasts a $471 million endowment, including $121 million in offshore accounts. Mr. Cohen and Mr. Dees were paid more than $400,000 each in 2017, according to tax documents posted online.
In his Tuesday statement, Mr. Fair was upbeat.
“It has been a difficult time for us, and we know that it has been a difficult time for many of you as well. However, we remain as committed to our work as ever,” he said. “But, we’re also firm in our commitment to resolving the issues at hand.”
• Valerie Richardson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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