The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) was founded in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1971 by Morris Dees (pictured) and Joseph J. Levin, Jr. as a nonprofit civil rights legal firm. By cherry-picking a relatively few high-profile cases against the Ku Klux Klan, White Aryan Resistance, and Aryan Nations, they have been able to establish themselves in the public eye as the premier champions against violent racism and hate.
The name — Southern Poverty Law Center — conjures images of dedicated and near-penniless lawyers heroically assisting poor rural sharecroppers and destitute inner-city families throughout the deep South in their struggles for justice. Those and similar images, like just about everything else promoted by the SPLC, are fraudulent mirages crafted by the organization’s co-founder and PR genius, Morris Dees.
Millard Fuller, an attorney and partner of Dees in the 1960s, has recalled:
Morris and I, from the first day of our partnership, shared the overriding purpose of making a pile of money. We were not particular about how we did it. We just wanted to be independently rich.
Dees has certainly succeeded in that. The SPLC’s tax returns for 2010 show it is sitting on assets of nearly $229 million, making it one of the most successful fundraising organizations in existence. A decade ago the SPLC left its multi-million dollar headquarters, located on prime real estate a mere block from the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery, for an even grander, new headquarters across the street, which critics have dubbed “Poverty Palace.” The Montgomery Advertiser in 2010 provided a lavish display of photos of Dees’ own ostentatious mansion and guesthouse on his luxurious estate outside Montgomery.
Dees and company have squirreled away an undisclosed portion of the organization’s assets in an offshore account in the Cayman Islands. The SPLC’s IRS filings mention the Cayman account but do not provide any details. The organization’s fundraising and spending practices have received poor or failing ratings from the Better Business Bureau, the American Institute of Philanthropy, and Charity Navigator. The Social Contract reports that, unknown to most donors, “the tax-exempt SPLC flunked an audit by the Arlington-based Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance, which requires that ‘a reasonable percentage, at least 50 percent of total income from all sources, should be applied to programs and activities directly related to the purposes for which the organization exists.’”
The SPLC, far from meeting those standards, “spent 89 percent of its total income on fundraising and administrative costs.”
In 2009, the SPLC’s president and CEO, Richard Cohen, the organization’s highest-paid employee, took home a salary of $348,652. Morris Dees got $336,072. Mark Potok received $143,206. No telling how much they received in off-shore compensation in the Cayman Islands. At the same time, median household income for Alabama was $41,676.
Photo of Morris Dees: AP Images
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