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High-profile firing adds to troubles for watchdog group

By JAY REEVES Associated Press

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — The high-profile firing of the co-founder of a liberal group best known for monitoring hate organizations is only the latest trouble for the nonprofit, which got its start handling civil rights cases in the Deep South.

At least three lawsuits filed by U.S. conservatives are pending against the Southern Poverty Law Center over its public labeling of groups it considers extremist, and a separate claim by a British organization resulted in a multimillion-dollar settlement and an unusual public apology less than a year ago.

The Montgomery, Alabama-based law center announced Thursday it had dismissed its 82-year-old founder, Morris Dees. A statement from the group’s president, Richard Cohen, didn’t specify the reason for Dees’ dismissal but said the organization must act when staff conduct doesn’t meet its standards.

“The SPLC is deeply committed to having a workplace that reflects the values it espouses – truth, justice, equity and inclusion, and we believe the steps we have taken today reaffirm that commitment,” Cohen said.

The firing could be a blow to the organization where Dees gained fame during a career that included winning multimillion-dollar verdicts against the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nations. He is arguably its best-known public face with thousands of donors who helped the organization build assets totaling $450 million.

Kathy Laing, program manager of the Institute on Philanthropy at the University of Richmond, said tax forms documenting the law center’s finances make it appear “they have the financial ability to weather this storm.”

But, she added: “The dangers come when the founder has the relationships with donors and funders.”

In a message on the law center’s website, Cohen praised Dees’ “incredible contributions to the fight against racial injustice in our country” and added: “But our work is about the cause, not the person.”

Dees said his dismissal involved a personnel issue but would not elaborate. He also didn’t criticize the organization he helped found nearly 50 years ago.

“I think the Southern Poverty Law Center is a very fine group and I devoted nearly 50 years of my life to it and I’m proud of its work,” Dees said.

Board members contacted by The Associated Press either declined comment or referred questions to the law center.

Dees’ dismissal came nine months after the law center agreed to a $3.4 million settlement after wrongly labeling a British organization and its founder as extremists. The law center issued statements saying it was wrong to include the London-based Quilliam and Maajid Nawaz in a “Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists.”

Meanwhile, the law center or its staffers face three similar lawsuits from conservative groups.

Most recently, the founder of a far-right men’s group called the Proud Boys, Gavin McInnes, sued the Southern Poverty Law Center last month for labeling the organization a hate group. The lawsuit contends the designation is false and damaged McInnes’ career.

The conservative Center for Immigration Studies sued Richard Cohen, the law center’s president, and Heidi Beirich, the director of its intelligence unit, in January in federal court claiming the organization had wrongly labeled it as an anti-immigrant hate group. And a Maryland attorney, Glen K. Allen, sued the law center, Beirich and a former staffer in December saying it wrongly called him a “neo-Nazi lawyer.”

The lawsuits opened a new front for the law center, which has long been a target of the groups it monitors. Three Klansmen pleaded guilty to firebombing the organization’s office in Montgomery in 1983; Dees helped sort through charred papers outside the building the morning after the attack.

Dees got his start in sales, founding a direct mail marketing company that specialized in publishing while he was a student at the University of Alabama. A company the Alabama native started with the late Millard Fuller, who went on to begin Habitat for Humanity, which constructs homes for the needy, grew into a major regional publishing company.

Eleven years after earning his law degree, Dees and partner Joseph J. Levin Jr. formed the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1971 to handle civil rights cases and represent clients including the poor, minorities and prisoners. Dees was finance director for President Jimmy Carter’s campaign in 1976.

After a career that included near-constant court fights against right-wing extremists, Dees was honored with the American Bar Association’s highest honor in 2012. In his acceptance speech, Dees praised the tenacity of the law center, which now has more than 350 employees in five states.

“None of our lawyers have ever backed down or quit; or any of our staff has ever backed down or quit because of the trials and tribulations we’ve had to face,” he said.

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