When the SPLC fired co-founder Morris Dees last month it cited vague misconduct and described the action as a “personnel issue.” Several subsequent reports suggested Dees was fired over multiple instances of sexual harassment and, ironically, racism toward black employees, but there were no specifics given about any of the allegations. Last Friday the Washington Post published a detailed story which spelled out some of the incidents which led to Dees’ firing.
In late 2017, the organization investigated a complaint from a female employee about Dees’s behavior after a fundraising event in Atlanta. Dees said that at a social gathering, he approached the woman, put his hand on her shoulder and asked her about a visible tattoo on her arm. He said that, after she asked if he had any tattoos, he pointed to the front of his clothed right thigh, where he said he had one. The Post was unable to reach the woman or others who attended the event to learn their accounts…
At least a dozen people said that they witnessed Dees acting inappropriately with women, including subordinates, or making racially insensitive comments.
“Morris made overtures to women who worked for him,” said Deb Ellis, one of the first female lawyers hired by the center who worked there from 1984 to 1986. She recalled that one morning she came into work to find a Victoria’s Secret catalogue on her desk, with a note from Dees on top saying, “Maybe your boyfriend would like to order something for you.”…
[Maureen] Costello detailed her own discomfort around Dees in a March 11 memo to a human resources official, which she provided to The Post…
She wrote that at a group dinner she attended in Washington several years ago, Dees turned his attention to a younger female employee and “engaged in an inappropriately sexualized banter” and, as he spoke of his fondness for oysters, “licked his lips in a suggestive way.” She also said that once, about four years ago, when she was wearing a sundress, Dees placed his hand on her exposed upper back and let it linger there, after which she tried to avoid him.
The incident she detailed most thoroughly involved a group dinner at Dees’s home. He asked where her husband was and, hearing he was away, encouraged her to drink heavily and offered to drive her home, Costello wrote. A few minutes later, she said, Dees brought a board member, Elden Rosenthal, into the conversation. “Sure, we can take her home, especially if her husband isn’t there,” Rosenthal said as both he and Dees laughed, according to Costello.
Dees denies all of this but women who work at the SPLC told the Post they had been privately warned by other women working there to avoid him. None of this rises to the level of sexual assault but some of it is reminiscent of the sort of behavior Joe Biden has been in trouble for recently, i.e. putting his hands on women in a way that seems too personal and inappropriate. The other allegations that led to his firing involved jokes and comments which were deemed racist by black employees at the SPLC. For instance:
Jessamine Starr, the daughter of Dees’s ex-wife Susan Starr, said she once heard Dees use the phrase “colored people time” when referring to people who were late. She added that given the era and the place he grew up in, “that would be a normal thing to say.”
Dees denied ever using the term “colored people time” or making any racially insensitive remarks. “Anybody saying I’m a racist is almost a joking matter,” he said.
In the 1990s a local paper, the Montgomery Advertiser, published an 8-part series on the SPLC which was later nominated for a Pulitzer prize. That story contained allegations about Dees behavior toward black employees. Friday, Jim Tharpe, the former editor of the Advertiser described what happened behind the scenes when his paper published the results of its investigation:
We were, at the time, anything but adversaries with the center. Like other media outlets, we generally parroted SPLC press releases. We also became friends with SPLC staffers, occasionally attending the center’s parties. Some of my reporters dated staffers at the center.
That relationship, however, suddenly soured when reporters Dan Morse and Greg Jaffe (both of whom now work for The Post) began making serious inquiries about the SPLC’s finances and the treatment of black employees.
SPLC leaders threatened legal action on several occasions, and at one point openly attacked the newspaper’s investigation in a mass mailing to Montgomery lawyers and judges. Then they slammed the door.
“Accommodating your charade of objectivity simply takes too much of our time,” center co-founder Joseph J. Levin Jr. wrote the Advertiser in 1993. “Our patience in this matter is exhausted, and we will not respond to further inquiries of any sort.”
Tharpe wonders why Dees wasn’t fired 25 years ago. But back then, as now, Dees (and SPLC president Richard Cohen) denied everything. The organization kept raising millions of dollars and kept being cited by people in the media.
Tharpe argues it’s too late for an outside expert hired by the SPLC to save it. He believes the federal government needs to step in: “The Internal Revenue Service, which grants the SPLC tax-exempt status, and the civil rights division of the Justice Department would be the best bets to really figure out what’s up at the center.”
Even with Dees and Cohen gone, the SPLC is a sham. As one liberal writer recently argued, the SPLC’s well-known Hate Map is “a willful deception designed to scare older liberals into writing checks.” The organization sent out a solicitation email a few days after Dees was fired asking for donors to “let Morris and his colleagues know you care.”