SPLC — The Cost of Failure

The Southern Poverty Law Center released its IRS Form 990 tax return for 2019 earlier this week. Not surprising, the company reported nine-digit revenues for the third year in a row, 83% of which came from direct donations.

Last year brought in $117 million, which is down from 2018’s $122 million and 2017’s record-breaking $133 million take, but is still twice 2016’s paltry $58 million. The advent of Donald Trump’s election and the 2017’s Charlottesville riots created a corporate virtue signalling campaign of unprecedented scale, which will likely rebound slightly for the 2020 election cycle.

Last year also brought the entirely-unforeseen but much-needed shakeup of the SPLC’s Executive Suite, starting with the ouster of company founder Morris Dees under allegations of long-time sexual harassment of female employees. Former SPLC staffer Bob Moser documented this open secret in a March 21, 2019 New Yorker article, The Reckoning of Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

According to Moser, “Incoming female staffers were additionally warned by their new colleagues about Dees’s reputation for hitting on young women.” The SPLC’s top leadership had been receiving complaints of this nature routinely, but chose to keep Dees on the payroll because the donors loved him.

Dees, for his part, refuted this claim with the kind of logic that only a lawyer could love: Dees claimed that he couldn’t have been hitting on women at the office because he was hardly ever in the building any more.

On March 14, 2019, the SPLC’s hometown newspaper, the Montgomery Advertiser, reported “[Dees] said he hadn’t tried a case in at least a decade and hadn’t recently been involved in the day-to-day operations of the SPLC. ” PJ Media‘s Tyler O’Neil repeated this claim in his 2020 book, Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center, where he quotes Dees as saying that he had very rarely gone to the office for the past ten years.

All this begs the question as to why Morris Dees was kept on the company payroll all those years, at a salary exceeding $400,000 annually? This is especially troubling considering the millions of fundraising appeals the SPLC sent out to gullible donors over those years, implying that the company was in dire need of cash.

Long-time SPLC president Richard Cohen, who also pulled down $400,000 a year, is chiefly to blame, which partially explains why Cohen quit the SPLC a week after firing Dees, as did SPLC Legal Director Rhonda Brownstein.

Cohen should have fired Dees after the first sexual misconduct charges were made, but instead he kept Dees on at full pay so that the latter could make the occasional fundraising call to the company’s richest donors.

Cohen also jumped ship under the cloud that, under his leadership, the SPLC had a decades-old record of not promoting minorities to senior positions, a claim documented by Montgomery Advertiser reporters Dan Morse and Greg Jaffe as early as 1994.

So Morris Dees was fired in disgrace from the very company he created and Cohen and Brownstein beat feet to get as far from the sinking ship as quickly as possible. All’s well that ends well, right? Not so much for the donors. The recent IRS Form 990 shows that despite being fired, Morris Dees collected his full salary for the year, as did Cohen and Brownstein, despite having ignominiously quit their jobs.

The three great humanitarians, who were shown the door roughly one-third of the way into the fiscal year, were paid a total of $1,109,049 donor-dollars in all, with nearly $732,000 of that coming after they no longer worked for the company.

That bill was picked up by the donors. At $100 a pop, some 7,300 donors, who believed with all their hearts that their money was somehow “fighting hate,” instead paid for the severance packages of three people whose moral failures nearly destroyed the SPLC.

At a more likely $25 donation level, that number jumps to 183,000 well-meaning suckers.

2019 Dees Cohen pay 1

2019 Brownstein pay 1

SPLC Severance - IRS Form 990 -Page 51

Cohen and Brownstein severance payments

Richard Cohen cannot hog all of the credit for keeping Morris Dees around for all those years, though. An equal share, perhaps even a greater share, goes to the SPLC’s Board of Directors, whose sworn duty was to respond to serious allegations against company executives and who ultimately have hire/fire powers.

Amazingly, nine of the 14 Board members who did absolutely nothing about Dees’ and Cohen’s disreputable behavior for years (ten, if interim SPLC president Karen Baynes-Dunning returns to the Board) are STILL on the Board in 2020!

2019 Board of Directors

2019 SPLC Board of Directors

2020 Board of Directors

2020 SPLC Board of Directors

Many of the Board members have been in place for years, including Morris Dees’ divorce lawyer, Howard Mandell, who was on the Board back when Morse and Jaffe were writing their week-long exposé of the SPLC in 1994.

One 2019 Board alumna who bailed out in the wake of the Dees/Cohen debacle was Jocelyn Benson, who was named as Michigan Secretary of State in 2018.  On March 26, 2019,  PJ Media noted Benson’s sudden disappearance from the SPLC website.

Benson’s office claimed that “Upon taking office as Michigan Secretary of State, Secretary Benson informed SPLC leadership that she would be stepping down from the board,” but the SPLC website’s bio page for Benson describes her as Secretary of State for nearly six months before her sudden removal from the page.

Even if the removal of Benson from the Board webpage after her election was an oversight by the SPLC, she still served on the Board since at least 2015 and worked for the SPLC in the early 2000s. The odds of Ms. Benson not “getting the word” about Mr. Dees alleged improprieties in all that time, especially as a young intern, are pretty slim.

Jocelyn Benson is as guilty of keeping Morris Dees and Richard Cohen on the SPLC payroll as is Howard Mandell and the rest of the Board of Directors, and yet not one of them have ever been taken to task for their failure.

Instead, the buck was passed to the almighty donors.

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