Southern Poverty Law Center, which frequently targets conservatives, reels from harassment, intolerance claims
Amid a departure of top executives at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a new report details allegations of sexual misconduct and racial discrimination against those very individuals at the progressive nonprofit which frequently has targeted conservative groups.
A report from the New York Times on Monday detailed several complaints by both current and former employees that indicated a “climate of intolerance” in the workplace -- complaints including sexual harassment and a lack of diversity based on race and gender.
In recent years, the center has drawn criticism from Republicans and conservatives who have accused the SPLC of unfairly labeling people and groups with conservative viewpoints as bigots. Republican lawmakers have also questioned the working relationship between the SPLC and the FBI.
On Friday, SPLC President Richard Cohen announced he would be stepping down from the civil rights organization amid the harassment and diversity allegations.
“We’re going through a difficult period right now, and I know that we’ll emerge stronger at the end of the process that we’ve launched with Tina Tchen,” he said speaking of the Chicago-based attorney and onetime chief of staff for former first lady Michelle Obama who is conducting a review of the nonprofit.
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“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.”
Cohen’s departure came only about a week after the organization fired co-founder Morris Dees.
While the SPLC did not offer details into Dees’ ousting, the Times report pointed to several factors.
About two dozen employees reportedly signed a letter saying “allegations of mistreatment, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and racism threaten the moral authority of this organization and our integrity along with it.”
The report stated that several women on staff were warned about being alone with Dees and that two specific incidents led to his ultimate termination.
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A 2017 complaint against the 82-year-old alleged that Dees made a female employee uncomfortable by touching her shoulder and asking about her visible tattoos, prompting her to contact human resources. Dees denied any wrongdoing but acknowledged the complaint.
A second complaint was filed against Dees but the nature of that allegation was unknown.
In a statement to Fox News, the SPLC said Dees was fired after the second investigation.
“Following a prior investigation, the Board of Directors disciplined Mr. Dees for inappropriate conduct. After additional conduct and an additional investigation, Mr. Cohen, with the support of the Board of Directors, terminated Mr. Dees’ employment.”
A spokesperson said that as an organization that identifies as a defender of civil rights, “the SPLC is committed to ensuring that the conduct of our staff reflects the mission of the organization and the values we hope to instill in the world. When one of our own fails to meet those standards, no matter his or her role in the organization, we take it seriously and must take appropriate action.”
The SPLC's problems stretched further than the allegations of sexual harassment.
The Times reported that several employees were subject to “racially callous remarks” and that some on staff were sidelined because of their skin color -- ultimately affecting their pay and advancement within the organization.
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Dana Vickers Shelley, a former staff member who resigned, said the SPLC was not “trying to be diverse in terms of reflecting the people who they served.”
Bryan Fair, the chair of SPLC's board of directors, said that they took the allegations “very seriously.”
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“The events of the last week have been a clear reminder that the walk towards justice must start at your own front door. We acknowledge and take very seriously the significant concerns that our talented and deeply committed staff have raised, and we are committed to listening further, taking ownership wherever we have failed to live up to our own standards and values, and to making any changes necessary at the conclusion of this process to ensure that the Center is exemplifying and upholding them.”
In addition to Dees and Cohen, an assistant legal director also left over gender and race equity concerns.
Fox News’ Louis Casiano contributed to this report.