News & Politics

SPLC President Richard Cohen Steps Down Amid Scandal as Investigation Begins

SPLC President Richard Cohen Steps Down Amid Scandal as Investigation Begins
Southern Poverty Law Center President Richard Cohen discusses a SPLC federal lawsuit against the Alabama Accountability Act during a press conference in Montgomery, Ala., Monday, Aug. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

Richard Cohen, president of the far-left smear group the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), announced his resignation on Friday, after 18 years at its helm. Cohen, who has led the organization since 2003, said he would step down after the investigation led by Michelle Obama’s former chief of staff, Tina Tchen.

Cohen said he has asked the SPLC’s board of directors “to immediately launch a search for an interim president in order two give the organization the best chance to heal.”

“Whatever problems exist at the SPLC happened on my watch, so I take responsibility for them,” he said in a statement provided to the Montgomery Advertiser.

Cohen predicted that “we’ll emerge stronger” after Tchen’s investigation. “Given my long tenure as the SPLC president, however, I do not think I should be involved in that process beyond cooperating with Tina, her team, and the board in any way that may be helpful,” the president said.

An SPLC spokesperson refused to comment on the specifics of Cohen’s decision.

Last week, the SPLC fired its co-founder, Morris Dees, after Associate Legal Director Meredith Horton resigned, sending a letter with complaints regarding sexual harassment and racial discrimination.

Complaints of racial discrimination and the SPLC’s refusal to promote black employees into positions of leadership have plagued the organization for decades. In a 1994 Advertiser series, three black former employees compared the SPLC to a plantation. One said the SPLC’s activism on race is “like the pot calling the kettle black.” Complaints about racial discrimination resurfaced in 2017 reviews on GlassDoor.

Former employees in the GlassDoor reviews also encouraged the SPLC to “clean house at the top,” with many specifically calling for Cohen’s ouster.

A powerful expose in the New Yorker revealed the depths of the smear group’s corruption. Former staffers described it as the “Poverty Palace” and “a highly profitable scam.” They also said Dees’s firing was insufficient. “If Cohen and other senior leaders thought that they could shunt the blame, the riled-up staffers seem determined to prove them wrong,” Bob Moser wrote.

In his statement, Cohen called it an “incredible honor” to work at the SPLC. According to his biography on the organization’s website, he started as a legal director in 1986, was promoted to vice president of programs and then to president in 2003.

“I hope everyone participates in the transformational process that Tina will be leading with an open heart and an open mind,” Cohen said in the statement. “And I hope that everyone will let the process play out before jumping to conclusions. We can’t be calling for a review and simultaneously casting blame before that review is complete.”

The SPLC began as a civil rights organization, suing the Ku Klux Klan. In recent decades, however, it has devolved into a far-left smear factory, listing conservative and Christian nonprofits as “hate groups” along with the KKK. These designations inspired a terrorist attack in 2012, and the SPLC has pressured tech companies, donors, and credit card companies to blacklist these “hate groups” as if they were inspiring terrorism.

Tina Tchen seems supportive of this kind of false hate. When Empire star Jussie Smollett told police he was attacked in a hate crime, Tchen urged a local prosecutor to take up the case and even involve the feds. She did so mere days after the purported attack, which took place during one of the coldest weeks in Chicago history. Furthermore, Smollett did not remove the noose he claims was placed around his neck in a hate crime until he was already at the hospital.

Police later charged Smollett with 16 felony counts for reporting what police concluded was a hate crime hoax. Tchen’s action in the case suggests a clear bias and a rush to judgment when conservatives in MAGA hats are accused of hate crimes. She should fit right in at the SPLC.

While it is good that Morris Dees is out and that Richard Cohen is stepping down, it seems unlikely the SPLC will become an unbiased “hate group” watchdog.

That said, the organization does have a chance for reform. It should take it.

Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.