The Southern Poverty Law Center has been show to be hoarding donated cash overseas while spending little to nothing outside of executive salaries and fundraising costs.
This latest round of inconvenient facts comes as the SPLC is trying and failing to serve Daily Stormer publisher Andrew Anglin in a lawsuit where Anglin is accused of publicizing the existence of an organized campaign of harassment against
his Richard Spencer's mother by a Pantsuit busybody. In spite of their substantial collection of rapidly depreciating fiat, the Morally Impoverished Law Center can't buy a successful service of process.
"Advancing Cultural Marxism means generating cover for Pantsuit and participating in the original (Soviet) Russian interference in the US political process. ↩
Attacking a Home-Town Icon
Jim Tharpe, Deputy Metro Editor, The Atlanta Constitution.
[Jim Tharpe, 45, has worked at newspapers in Florida, South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia. As an editor in Montgomery, Alabama, he led a small afternoon newspaper, The Alabama Journal, to its first Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for the paper's reporting on the state's infant mortality problem.
While he managing editor of The Montgomery Advertiser, that newspaper won numerous state, regional and national awards, including two national Headliner Awards in one year. The newspaper was a finalist for a 1995 Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Tharpe was a Nieman Fellow in 1989-90 and has served on numerous awards panels, including two stints as a Pulitzer juror. He currently is a deputy metro editor for the Atlanta Constitution.]
I was talking to Doug earlier and he said one of the organizations he reported on accused him of attacking God, one of the nonprofits he’d done some work on. We were accused of attacking essentially the Mother Teresa of Montgomery, being Morris Dees in the Southern Poverty Law Center.
For many years after I first got to The Montgomery Advertiser, probably three or four, we were essentially boosters for the center. We parroted their press releases; when they dedicated the civil rights memorial we published a series called "Alabama’s Real Heroes," about the martyrs who died in the movement; we were friends with people at the center. My newspaper was at 200 Washington Avenue, the center was at 400 Washington Avenue; a parking lot literally separates us.
I always saw the center as a pyramid. At the very top are the five people who make all the money. In the middle are the young idealists, they’re the same sorts of folks who would have volunteered for the Peace Corps after John Kennedy made his plea in the '60s. These are people, many of them from the Northeast and the West Coast, who come down to Montgomery for their Southern experience and they want to change the world. They work very long hours for very little money.
Breaking a Collegial Relationship
They were friends with people at the paper; we hung out with them. There aren’t a lot of young liberals in Montgomery, as you might imagine, and those are the people we associated with. We went to their parties, they went to our parties, they dated people on our staff; occasionally people on our staff would go work for the center. I think we may have had one person from the center actually come work for us. We’d share information back and forth. It was a very collegial relationship.
At the same time, there were some indications that things were amiss, The Progressive had published an article, "How Morris Dees Got Rich Fighting the Klan." A former associate of Mr. Dees, Millard Farmer, who is a very well-known anti-death penalty lawyer and the study for the lawyer in "Dead Man Walking," had parted ways with Mr. Dees over a fight over the way they were pursuing anti-death penalty fundraising, and had referred to Mr. Dees as running the Jim and Tammy Bakker Show of the civil rights movement down in Montgomery.
So you were getting little inklings all along that there was something that wasn’t quite right there. Many of the staffers in the mid-level of the pyramid who were our friends would come, they would stay a year or two, by design – those jobs were generally meant to last a year or two – and they would leave, and on several occasions they would come to me or come to somebody else at the paper and say, "You guys really ought to look at this place, something’s just not right there. I came here thinking this place was one thing and I’m leaving thinking it’s another."
So getting to the source question, those were our initial sources, those people who we were friends with. This went on for two or three years after I got there, and as 1991 approached the center was approaching its 20th anniversary, so we decided to look beyond the sound bite of the reporting that had been done on the center, to put it under a magnifying glass and see what we came up with.
I’d never done any reporting on nonprofits, I thought they were all good guys, they were mom-and-pop, bake-sale, raise-money-for-the-local-fire-department type operations. I had no idea how sophisticated they were, how much money they raised, and how little access you have to them as a reporter, some of which has already been covered here.
Summary of Findings
Our series was published in 1995 after three years of very brutal research under the threat of lawsuit the entire time.
Our findings were essentially these:
The center was building up a huge surplus. It was 50-something million at that time; it’s now approaching 100 million, but they’ve never spent more than 31 percent of the money they were bringing in on programs, and sometimes they spent as little as 18 percent. Most nonprofits spend about 75 percent on programs.
A sampling of their donors showed that they had no idea of the center’s wealth. The charity watchdog groups, the few that are in existence, had consistently criticized the center, even though nobody had reported that.
There was a problem with black employees at what was the nation’s richest civil rights organization; there were no blacks in the top management positions. Twelve out of the 13 black current and former employees we contacted cited racism at the center, which was a shocker to me. As of 1995, the center had hired only two black attorneys in its entire history.
We also found some questionable fundraising tactics. One of the most celebrated cases the center handled was the case of a young black man, Michael Donald, who was killed by Klansmen in Mobile, Alabama, and his body suspended from a tree, a very grotesque killing. The state tried the people responsible for the murder and several of them ended up on death row, a couple ended up getting life in prison.
The center, after that part of the case took place, sued the Klan organization to which they belonged and won a $7 million verdict. It was a very celebrated verdict in this country. The problem was the people who killed this kid didn’t have any money. What they really got out of it was a $51,000 building that went to the mother of Michael Donald. What the C enter got and what we reported was they raised $9 million in two years using the Donald case, including a mailing with the body of Michael Donald as part of it.
The top center officials, I think the top three, got $350,000 in salaries during that time, and Morris got a movie out of it, a TV movie of the week. I think it was called, "The Morris Dees Story."
As I said, being the editor on this series really raised my eyebrows. I never knew anything about nonprofits before this. I thought we would have complete access to their financial records; we didn’t. We had access to 990’s, which Doug mentioned earlier, which tell you very little, but they are a good starting point.
Organizations Monitor Nonprofits
I also learned that there are organizations out there that monitor nonprofits. A couple of these that might be worth your time are the National Charities Information Bureau, the American Institute of Philanthropy, and the Charities Division of the Better Business Bureau. They have rather loose guidelines, I think, for the way nonprofits operated, and even with those guidelines, they had blasted the center repeatedly for spending too little on programs, for the number of minorities in management positions, just very basic stuff that they’d been criticized for but nobody had reported.
The relationship with sources on this story was pretty interesting, because like I said, most of these people were our friends, and as somebody mentioned earlier, these were the disillusioned faithful. They were people who didn’t resign. As I said, most of their jobs simply ran out, but they left the center very disillusioned and very willing to talk about it, although most of them wanted to talk off the record.
That presented a number of problems for us. We did not publish anything in the series unless it was attributed to somebody, but we went beyond that. I think if we had stuck with that tack as the only thing we did in the series, we would have ended up with people at the center could have easily dismissed as disgruntled employees.
By looking at 990’s, what few financial records we did have available, we were able to corroborate much of that information, many of the allegations they had made, the fact that the center didn’t spend very much of its money that it took in on programs, the fact that some of the top people at the center were paid very high salaries, the fact that there weren’t minorities in management positions at the center.
If I had advice for anybody looking into a nonprofit it would be this: It’s the most tenacious story. You have to be more tenacious in your pursuit of these things than anything else I’ve ever been a part of. These guys threatened us with a lawsuit from the moment we asked to look at their financial records.
They were very friendly and cooperative, up until the point where we said, "We want to see the checks you write," and they turned over their 990’s and said, "Come look at these." We said, "We don’t want to see those, we know what those are and we’ve seen them. We actually want to see the checks you write," and they said, "Well, there’s 23,000 checks we’ve written over two years, you don’t possibly have time to look through all those," and we said, "Yes, we do, and we’ll hire an auditor to do it."
First Threats, Eventually No Response to Questions
At that point, they hired an independent attorney. They’re all lawyers, you’ve got to understand. They hired an attorney who began first by threatening me, then my editor, and then the publisher. "And you better be careful of the questions you ask and the stories you come up with," and they would cite the libel law to us. So we were under threat of lawsuit for two years, basically, during the research phase of the series.
They initially would answer our questions in person, as long as they could tape-record it. After we asked about finances, they wanted the questions written down and sent to them in advance, and then finally they said, "We’re tired of you guys, we’re not answering anything else," and they completely cut us off.
We published the series over eight days in 1994, and it had very little effect, actually. I think the center now raises more money than it ever has. [Laughter]
The story really didn’t get out of Montgomery and that’s a real problem. The center’s donors are not in Montgomery; the center’s donors are in the Northeast and on the West Coast. So the story pretty much was contained in Montgomery where it got a shrug-of-the-shoulders reaction. We really didn’t get much reaction at all, I’m sad to say.
One of our editorial writers had an interesting comment on it. I think he stole it from somebody else, but his comment was this: "They came to do good and they’ve done quite well for themselves, and they’ve done even better since the series was published." I’m not sure what the lesson in that is, but don’t assume because a nonprofit has a sterling reputation it’s not worth looking into, and don’t assume when you start looking into it that it’s going to be easy to get the information, because it’s not.
Lawyers Offering Their Services
Kovach – Let me add two addenda to this in terms of reporting on nonprofits. I don’t know if it was your experience or the experience of one of you guys, but one of the results of the increasing journalistic interest in nonprofits is that lawyers have talked about this kind of reporting at bar association meetings and there are now law firms that specialize in calling news organizations that are investigating nonprofits and offering their services.
We invited to the conference last year a reporter working on a major series about the Save The Children organization. He could not come because the lawyers had already put the newspaper on notice that they were going to sue them and were sending lawyers out to follow the journalists and go behind them and question the people the journalists talked to, file complaints back to the office about the way they talked to the people out in the field around the world, and had the newspaper so tense and so tied up they were ordered not to speak about it.
The other point is, when this was nominated for a Pulitzer, Morris Dees, who is one of the great fundraisers for a lot of political figures in the country, mobilized some of the best-known and probably most liberal politicians in the country for whom he had raised money and they lobbied the Pulitzer Board against this series, the first lobbying that I know of of that kind, and without knowing anything about the Southern Poverty Law Center’s activities they were lobbying the Pulitzer Board not to recognize this work.