Wednesday, May 1, 2019

With Morris Dees and others hitting the exits at SPLC, a Montgomery institution likely needs a federal investigation to save itself from dysfunctional leaders

Morris Dees

With the recent departure of three top executives, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is in such disarray that one news outlet reported "the wheels had come off" at the venerated civil-rights organization in Montgomery, Alabama.

In dozens of news accounts about the firing of founder Morris Dees and the resignations of president Richard Cohen and legal director Rhonda Brownstein, the same theme appears over and over: The SPLC has not been what it appeared to be for years; it essentially is a fraudulent organization, finally facing a reckoning amid multiple reports from staffers about racial and gender discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace -- the very issues SPLC supposedly was designed to fight.

Another recurring theme: The SPLC mostly is about fundraising, with limited concerns about actual justice. From my former home base in Birmingham, AL, I've heard for years about dysfunction and phoniness at the SPLC. Ultimately, the organization's disinterest in fighting for constitutional rights hit home in a personal way.

The situation at SPLC is so dire that prominent voices are calling for a federal investigation. From The Washington Post, written by former Montgomery Advertiser managing editor Jim Tharpe:

Dees has said little about why he was shown the door after 48 years at the organization he had come to define. But to those of us familiar with the SPLC and its inner workings, the allegations swirling around the latest drama were familiar. The question isn't what went wrong at the SPLC; it is why it took so long for the rest of the country to learn what local reporters already knew. It will probably take a federal investigation to fully unravel this Deep South mystery and provide a credible, long-term fix.

More than two decades ago, I was managing editor of the Montgomery Advertiser, which was located one block from the SPLC in downtown Montgomery, Alabama. I proposed an investigation into the organization after ongoing complaints from former SPLC staffers, who came and went with regularity but always seemed to tell the same story. Only the names and faces changed. The SPLC, they said, was not what it appeared to be. Many urged the newspaper to take a look. . . .

In February 1994, after three years of research, the Advertiser published an eight-part series titled "Rising Fortunes: Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center" that found a litany of problems and questionable practices at the SPLC, including a deeply troubled history with its relatively few black employees, some of whom reported hearing the use of racial slurs by the organization's staff and others who "likened the center to a plantation"; misleading donors with aggressive direct-mail tactics; exaggerating its accomplishments; spending most of its money not on programs but on raising more money; and paying its top staffers (including Dees and Cohen) lavish salaries.

What should be the focus of such an investigation? Tharpe provides insights:

Any investigation should take a close look at the SPLC's finances. It should look at what the center has told donors in its mail solicitations over the years. And it should take a close look at how that donor money has been spent. Investigators should also look at how SPLC staffers have been treated over the years. Where was the center's board when this mistreatment was going on? And why did no one step up sooner?

The feds owe that to the young progressives who work at the SPLC. And they certainly owe that to the donors who have put their own first-class stamps on the checks they mailed to Montgomery.

Multiple press reports suggest Morris Dees' primary talent, since founding SPLC in 1971, has been separating liberals from boatloads of cash. On the flip side, he and his staff -- while promoting the notion that "hate groups" are proliferating in America -- did relatively little to stand up for those whose civil rights had been violated, often by judges, lawyers, bar associations (the legal tribe), law enforcement, and conservative politicians.

Ray Scott
In fact, we now know Dees long has been in bed with the very entities that tend to abuse civil rights. One source who has seen Dees operate in an up-close way tells Legal Schnauzer that Dees has a history of manipulating courts -- especially the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta -- to help ensure his allies receive favorable treatment. If this means sucking up to Republicans -- even those with records of opposing civil rights -- Dees is willing to do it.

Some have suggested SPLC practices a form of reverse racism, against white people. From National Vanguard:

The SPLC works closely with the judiciary, law enforcement, secret police agencies, the media, and academia to quash the rights of White Americans by targeting, terrorizing, and destroying them and their families emotionally, reputationally, economically, and organizationally. . . .

In 2001 the morally bankrupt American Bar Association published a ghost-written hagiography “by” Dees called A Lawyer’s Journey: The Morris Dees Story. The real author is named Steve Fiffer. The book carried cover blurbs by Jimmy Carter, Kurt Vonnegut, and Establishment Black icons Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King. Amazon’s “customer reviews” seem to have been doctored to present a glowing picture of readers’ opinions.

Is National Vanguard over the top on some of this? Perhaps, but the record is clear that Dees has enjoyed a cozy relationship with law enforcement, courts, and the legal establishment -- all entities that are riddled with corruption and tendencies to quash due-process rights.

For a supposed civil-rights icon, Morris Dees has kept curious company over the years. Some examples:

* Dees long has been close to Ray Scott, founder of the Bass Anglers Sportsman's Society (B.A.S.S.) and friend of the Bush family. A 2003 affidavit from Missouri lawyer Paul Benton Weeks provides details about the relationship between Dees, Scott, B.A.S.S., and the right-wing Bushies. From item No. 45 of the Weeks affidavit, focusing partly on former federal judge Ira DeMent, who had been appointed to hear a lawsuit against B.A.S.S.-- in which Weeks served as a plaintiff's lawyer:

Simply doing my job, I researched Judge DeMent's background and discovered that while serving as an Alabama U.S. attorney, Mr. DeMent was involved in three of the 1970 B.A.S.S. anti-pollution suits and had been told in a letter by a B.A.S.S., Inc. attorney (Morris Dees) that B.A.S.S. is a"national association. . . . " My research and investigation led to other information suggesting that Judge DeMent might have knowledge of facts material to the B.A.S.S. case.

So, we learn that Dees represented B.A.S.S. and had a tendency to write curious communications to a federal judge presiding over a case involving B.A.S.S. As for Ray Scott and the Bushes, Weeks provides more insight:

There are also politics at work in the B.A.S.S. case. Since the late 1970s, Ray Scott has used his (ill-gotten) wealth and prominence to align with the Bushes. In a 1999 vanity-press biography, Scott repeatedly mentions his connection with the Bushes. . . . Scott'sbiography reports that both father and son Bush have helped Scott when requested.

Scott's 1999 biography also suggests that Scott enjoys special access with Gov. Bush, now President of the United States and a "life member of B.A.S.S." Scott is also quoted in this book as saying that:"George W. told me that outside his father and family, the two men who had the most profound effect on his life were Billy Graham and Ray Scott. One had taught him about faith and the other about bass fishing."

Ray Scott's claim to enjoy a special connection with the Bush family is not mere braggadocio. Former President Bush wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal in January 1996 criticizing the WSJ for publishing its December 13, 1995, article about the B.A.S.S. case and its obvious merit.

* Dees has other curious ties to right-wingers, perhaps most notably with Edward Carnes, current chief judge of the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. While chief of the Capital Punishment Division in the Alabama Attorney General's Office, Carnes earned the nickname "Death Penalty Ed." Carnes' background was as a solid opponent of civil rights, but Dees pushed for his elevation to the Eleventh Circuit anyway. From an article titled "King of Fearmongers," at the Weekly Standard:

Dees further alienated opponents of the death penalty—and Southern liberals in general—by successfully lobbying the Senate in 1992 to confirm George H. W. Bush’s nomination of Edward Carnes, head of the capital-punishment unit of the Alabama attorney general’s office and a leading death-penalty advocate, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. “He was up in Washington staying at the Four Seasons Hotel [in Georgetown] and lobbying Congress every day,” recalls Stephen B. Bright, a Yale law professor and president of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, a criminal-justice public-interest law firm that opposed the Carnes nomination. “He was the great Morris Dees, so he gave cover to the Democrats in Congress to vote to confirm Carnes,” said Bright in a telephone interview. Bright’s Southern Center has a $2 million annual budget, with nine staff lawyers pulling down relatively modest salaries. “Their annual budget is $30 million,” said Bright of the SPLC, “and we accomplish more than they do with a lot less.” Bright called Dees “a shyster if there ever was one—Morris is a con man.”

Why did Dees push so hard for Carnes to be planted on the Eleventh Circuit? Sources tell us it's because Carnes gives Dees a favorable ear on the appellate court, that Carnes essentially serves as a fixer for the SPLC and its allies. Here is more on the nomination from The New York Times:

As the Senate prepares to vote . . . on the nomination of Edward E. Carnes to be a Federal appeals court judge, some civil rights groups are trying to dispel the perception of a split in their ranks on the nomination, which they say they unequivocally oppose.

But there is no question that the nomination of Mr. Carnes, an Alabama assistant attorney general, to succeed Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. of Alabama, who is widely revered as a hero of the civil rights era, has caused a rift among forces generally considered to be allies.

Edward Carnes
That rift centers on Morris Dees, the crusading Alabama lawyer and foe of the Ku Klux Klan, who since January has aggressively championed the nomination of the 42-year-old Mr. Carnes, who is often referred to by critics as Alabama's chief defender of the death penalty. It has been Mr. Dees more than anyone else who has kept the nomination afloat in the increasingly choppy waters of controversy.

Those who oppose Mr. Carnes include civil rights groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and figures like Coretta Scott King and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Most cite Mr. Carnes's support of the death penalty, but they also criticize his lack of experience in other areas of the law and his efforts to limit inmates' appeals to the Federal courts.

Mr. Dees, although himself an opponent of the death penalty, says he supports Mr. Carnes because he is fair and progressive on racial issues. As founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which runs educational programs on racial tolerance as well as battles white supremacists, Mr. Dees carries weight in the Senate.

Perhaps that kind of underhandedness and manipulation of the court system, plus his lack of genuine concern for the rights of others, led to Morris Dees' downfall at SPLC. From a recent article titled "The Southern Poverty Law Center Is Everything That's Wrong With Liberalism," from

The Southern Poverty Law Center perfectly shows social change done wrong. It was a top-down organization controlled by an incompetent and venal leadership.* It was hypocritical in the extreme, preaching anti-racism while fostering a racist internal culture and being led by men whose own commitment to equality was questionable. It didn’t care about listening to and incorporating the viewpoints of the people it was supposed to serve. It was obscenely rich in a time of terrible poverty, and squandered much its considerable wealth. Finally, it picked the wrong political targets, and focused on symbolic over substantive change. Each of these practices goes beyond the SPLC, and is endemic to a certain kind of “elite liberalism” that desires “progress” without sacrifice. It is the kind of liberalism recognized by Phil Ochs in 1966, and its chief characteristics are a deep hypocrisy and a lack of willingness to seriously challenge the status quo.

What the SPLC doesn’t do with its money is a problem. But there is also a problem with what it does do. The story here has been told many times: After beginning as something vaguely resembling a “poverty law” firm in the ’70s, and winning a number of important anti-discrimination fights, the SPLC turned much of its attention to going after “hate groups.” It pursued the Ku Klux Klan in court on behalf of its victims, winning large judgments. Over time, it began to track “hate” across the country, and it now has a 15-person staff producing “intelligence reports” on hate groups.

I know how the SPLC's fraudulent act plays out in real life. I've seen the impact it has on victims of injustice.

(To be continued)

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