Southern ‘Poverty’ Law Center’s Cayman Islands Bank Account

MPetrelis, Daily Kos (blog), November 26, 2010

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As if an unquestionable and unblemished deity was handing down tablets of absolute truth, many gay bloggers and community leaders including Dan Savage wholly embraced the release earlier this week of a new list on 18 of the menacing antigay groups stirring up trouble from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

No doubt, the groups fingered by the SPLC don’t like us and contribute greatly to our political setbacks, but it’s not big news to me that the groups have been corralled on to an SPLC list–one of obvious extremist enemies. The gays have more to worry about with the very mainstream Democratic Party and its affiliated gay front group, the Human Rights Campaign. Let’s look beyond the scary report and peek at larger SPLC issues.

The SPLC’s new 2009 IRS 990 filing shows they have a bank account in the Cayman Islands. Now, stop for a good long minute and ask yourself what the hell is a supposed poverty-fighting Alabama-based tax exempt organization doing with such an account. Then ponder this: how much money is in it.

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, 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.

The big bucks nesting in SPLC’s bank accounts, domestic and foreign, are not the only area of interest to me. Noted veteran leftwing writer Alexander Cockburn in May 2009 analyzed SPLC’s IRS 990 for the previous year, its enormous endowment and wallet-busting salaries, and compares its agenda with more effective and smaller budgeted groups:

How about attacking the roots of Southern poverty, and the system that sustains that poverty as expressed in the endless prisons and Death Rows across the South, disproportionately crammed with blacks and Hispanics?

You fight theatrically, the Dees way, or you fight substantively, like, for example, the Institute for Southern Studies run by Chris Kromm; or like Stephen Bright, who makes only $11,000 as president and senior counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights. The center’s director makes less than $50,000 [ . . . ] Bright’s outfit is basically dedicated to two things: prison litigation and the death penalty. He fights the system, case by case. Not the phony targets mostly tilted at by Dees but the effective, bipartisan, functional system of oppression, far more deadly and determined than the SPLC’s tin-pot hate groups. [ . . . ]

And Cockburn is not the only watchdog keeping his eyes on all the millions of dollars flowing to SPLC and how the funds are used. Former Harper’s Magazine writer Ken Silverstein wrote a piece about the group in 2000, subtitled “How the Southern Poverty Law Center profits from intolerance,” that is still very pertinent and well-worth reading today:

What the center’s other work for justice does not include is anything that might be considered controversial by donors. According to [anti-death penalty lawyer] 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 [ . . . ]

In the early 1960s, Morris Dees sat on the sidelines honing his direct-marketing skills and practicing law while the civil rights movement engulfed the South. “Morris and I . . . shared the overriding purpose of making a pile of money,” recalls Dees’s business partner, a lawyer named Millard Fuller (not to be confused with Millard Farmer). “We were not particular about how we did it; we just wanted to be independently rich.” [ . . . ]

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.

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[Sources for this story along with videos and photographs are available here.]

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