More on the sleazy behavior of the SPLC

The Daily Kos is a liberal website, and a few years back it reported, as I mentioned yesterday, that the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has apparently stashed millions of dollars in offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands.  Now this appears to be legal, as it’s reported on the SPLC’s tax returns, but legality and ethicality are two different matters. Why are they doing this?

As the Kos reported in 2010:

Unfortunately, the IRS does not require SPLC or any tax exempt charity with an account in a foreign country to disclose additional details, such as the amount, and the SPLC’s current 990 filing merely notes the existence of an account in a foreign country. The center’s site reveals neither the existence of the off-shore account nor the total it contains.

Assets for the organization are listed at $190 million [JAC: it’s now $328 million], a nice chunk of change in these economic hard times. When was the last time this group, with almost $190 million in assets, did a damn worthwhile thing about, um, poverty?

The latest 990 additionally shows founder and chief trial counsel Morris Dees had his salary raised to $350,000, and his CEO, Richard Cohen, is close behind at $345,000.

The tax filing also shows Dees traveled by air charter, and that his spouse, artist and businesswoman Susan Starr, accompanies her husband on the business trips.

My report yesterday was based on the SPLC’s 2015 tax returns.

The article’s author, M. Petrelis, also notes other criticisms of the SPLC, including its waffling on the death penalty to appease some of its donors, and its continual amassing of big bucks that don’t appear to be used for anything substantive. It does like to make lists of “hate groups”, though! Petrelis is clearly angry at what he’s found:

For Dees, the P in SPLC has nothing to do with personal poverty. That P better stands for profit or profiteering for him, and foolish donors keep sending him checks, thinking they’re helping poverty-stricken blacks or whites in Alabama move into better housing.

Petrelis also recommends an article from Harper’s in 2000 which, he says, is still relevant, “How the Southern Poverty Law Center profits from intolerance.” At least at that time, the SPLC was engaged in questionable types of fund-raising, pulling in big bucks while doling out little to poor Southerners. I haven’t followed them closely, so they may still be doing this. One quote from the Harper’s piece:

The SPLC’s “other important work justice” consists mainly in spying on private citizens who belong to “hate groups,” sharing its files with law-enforcement agencies, and suing the most prominent of these groups for crimes committed independently by their members-a practice that, however seemingly justified, should give civil libertarians pause. The legal strategy employed by Dees could have put the Black Panther Party out of business or bankrupted the New England Emigrant Aid Company in retaliation for crimes committed by John Brown. What the Center’s other work for justice does not include is anything that might be considered controversial by donors. According to Millard Farmer, the Center largely stopped taking death-penalty cases for fear that too visible an opposition to capital punishment would scare off potential contributors. In 1986, the Center’s entire legal staff quit in protest of Dees’s refusal to address issues-such as homelessness, voter registration, and affirmative action-that they considered far more pertinent to poor minorities, if far less marketable to affluent benefactors, than fighting the KKK. Another lawyer, Gloria Browne, who resigned a few years later, told reporters that the Center’s programs were calculated to cash in on “black pain and white guilt.” Asked in 1994 if the SPLC itself, whose leadership consists almost entirely of white men, was in need of an affirmative action policy, Dees replied that “probably the most discriminated people in America today are white men when it comes to jobs.”

At the very least, the SPLC owes its donors and the public an explanation of those offshore accounts.


  1. Randy schenck
    Posted September 2, 2017 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    I wouldn’t think of giving a dime to these jokers. Fortunately we only give to animal charities and my other half does the review on all of these. Other than FFRF I should say.

  2. Graham Head
    Posted September 2, 2017 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Does the US not have an equivalent to the UK’s Charity Commission that registers charities and ensure that they are actually meeting their stated charitable objectives?

    • Posted September 2, 2017 at 11:44 am | Permalink

      There are several, including Charity Watch and others.

      • rickflick
        Posted September 2, 2017 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

        Charity Watch has nothing on SPLC.

    • Randy schenck
      Posted September 2, 2017 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      I think that over here you are pretty much on your own. Almost any good charity will say how much of what they collect goes to the charity. They would also provide admin costs, maybe salaries, etc. But regulations, not much. I saw an interview with one of the red cross executives the other day down there in Texas and she could not say how much, percentage-wise went to the people. Not good.

  3. Lamar Hankins
    Posted September 2, 2017 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    Back in the 1970s, I worked for an attorney who was lead counsel in a capital murder case. We were assisted by Millard Farmer (one of the best attorneys I have ever known), and a psychologist and another attorney provided through the SPLC. It is sad that SPLC has ceased such support. Poor defendants in the south (and everywhere else) need as much help as they can get to make the criminal justice system turn out just results.

  4. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 2, 2017 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Got the makings of a real shanda.

  5. Historian
    Posted September 2, 2017 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Hot off the press: Politico has recently published an extensive article critical of Morris Dees and the SPLC. The criticisms echo many of those discussed in the posts at this site. Until recently I had the image of the SPLC as consisting of a small staff working out of a dingy office. Quite the opposite is the case.

    • ploubere
      Posted September 2, 2017 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for that link, a good article.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted September 2, 2017 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

      Yes, what ploubere said.

  6. Posted September 2, 2017 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Why would a tax-exempt charity need a tax shelter? Sounds like a plan to abscond in the future.

    • ploubere
      Posted September 2, 2017 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      Good question.

  7. Jenny Haniver
    Posted September 2, 2017 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    They must be orgasmic over George Clooney’s donation of a cool million, which undoubtedly will go straight to an offshore account to benefit Dees and Co.

  8. BJ
    Posted September 2, 2017 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    As I said in the last thread, Couldn’t such unregulated offshore accounts be used to then further transfer some of their sums to other offshore accounts belonging to certain people or organizations to which a charity should not be giving money (be they individuals who wish to profit or organizations to which transfers would be considered suspicious, unethical, or even illegal)?

    Regardless, the suspicious activity continues to pile up, and has clearly been going on for decades.

  9. Posted September 2, 2017 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    The CEO salary listed above is not out of line with salaries of large non-profits, and presumably they should hire someone whose skills would give him a higher salary at a for-profit corporation. I wouldn’t criticize that. (The perks, maybe.)

    I would ask a LOT of questions about the off-shore bank account.

  10. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 2, 2017 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    These Cayman-Island bank accounts have the indicia of sleaze about them, like a common Paul Manafort. And I’ve been critical of the direction the SPLC has been taking for decades now, and highly critical of its labeling people like Nawaz and Hirsi Ali as Islamophobic haters.

    But I can’t get all worked up, in and of themselves, about the size of its endowment or its buildings or the salaries it pays its leaders. Seems to me a sign of a mature society taking charity seriously when those charities have assets, and can offer “stipendiary emoluments,” comparable to those of big business. It shouldn’t be the measure of virtue that they scrounge around in dingy offices for subsistence wages.

    • Randy schenck
      Posted September 2, 2017 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

      My understanding from the news is that Mueller is using the services of the IC IRS unit to look into Manafort and all the rest. This is the elite criminal branch of the IRS and they are considered very formidable. A retired head of this unit was interviewed for a bit on MSNBC last night. They also specialize in foreign banking, money laundering and all those goodies. Their prosecution percentage on a yearly average is over 90%.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted September 2, 2017 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

        Manafort’s ass is grass, and Mueller’s a mower. Manafort and Mike Flynn will be wearing prison stripes, and singing for their suppers, before all is said and done.

        • Randy schenck
          Posted September 2, 2017 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

          Understand also that Mueller is working closely with the New York Attorney Gen. and some actions may be turned to the state for action first verses federal. This is to eliminate Trump and his pardon ideas which do not work at the state level.

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted September 2, 2017 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

            Ain’t no moss growin’ on Mueller.

    • Posted September 2, 2017 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      $300M in the bank is slightly more than “assets”. (How many years of charitable activity does it amount to?) And salaries of $350K are slightly more than subsistence wages.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted September 2, 2017 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

        The MacArthur Foundation has %6 billion in its endowment; the Pew Trusts’ is close to the same, and Bill & Melinda Gates have a cool $40 billion in their charitable kick. The CEO of the Boy Scouts pulls down $1.3 mil, and the president of the Red Cross clocks in at $650k per annum.

        If there’s hanky-panky at the SPLC, the people responsible should take a fall. But there’s no point to getting bent out of shape over raw numbers.

        • Gareth
          Posted September 3, 2017 at 11:16 am | Permalink

          indeed, 40b in assets, can be a source of funding. If it were shares/stock with a miserly 1% return on investment, thats a cool 400m a year to pay staff and do great things.
          Scrutiny should be on what is being done, and is it being done well, not how many bazillions are in the bank.
          If a charity spent all its money at once it would last very long.

          • Gareth
            Posted September 3, 2017 at 11:16 am | Permalink

            That should be it wouldn’t last very long, obviously 🙂

  11. ploubere
    Posted September 2, 2017 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    The further negative effect of charities behaving like this is that it makes people less likely to give to any other organization out of suspicion that it might not be legitimate.

  12. Andy
    Posted September 3, 2017 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    Well, I may be one of the few voices of dissent, but I went through the tax returns and I’m genuinely struggling to see what the scandal is here. As reported, the story seems to be:
    Lawyers get paid more than you think they should.
    A multi-million dollar endowment has some foreign holdings that seem to be properly declared.
    The way it’s all over the right wing media suggests there is some level of coordination. Anyone remember Pizzagate? Or how Hillary’s emails had to be the important issue?

    Petrelis posted about this again in 2012. Based on the comments on that, it seems: That having some hard to seize or foreign assets is useful if you might get sued out of existence (see Gawker for example: -$140M from losing a single lawsuit!) And that they are a law center, not a give-money-to-the-poor sort of charity. On the other hand they also say that even non-profits may have to pay tax on some sorts of income, so perhaps it may be some legal sort of tax dodge. My own guess is that it is a multi-national investment, and that it looks legitimate, but then I’m not an expert.

    Finally, the statement, “The center’s site reveals neither the existence of the off-shore account nor …” doesn’t appear to be quite true, since it is on their site, on the “Financial Information” page, form 990; check it out if you don’t believe me. Posting excerpts from there is not really detective work.

    A better link to DailyKos might perhaps be:

  13. Jonathan Dore
    Posted September 3, 2017 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    Quite apart from the ethics involved, the amount of money shows there are rich liberals out there willing to give to “good causes”. So why is there no concerted effort by liberals to use that money in the way that the right wing has exploited so effectively over the past four decades? — such as setting up think tanks that produce reports that drive the political conversation and provide the springboard for political careers; setting up news networks to counter Fox and Breitbart; and buying into talk radio to counter Limbaugh and the like. Donating to groups like the SPLC is, in political terms, a reactive strategy — trying to mitigate the damage done by the right (ignoring for the moment their wrong turn into blacklisting). What seems to be lacking is anyone on the liberal side with a proactive agenda for taking back the initiative.

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