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World & Nation

Southern Poverty Law Center chief Richard Cohen announces resignation amid internal upheaval

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Richard Cohen resigned as president of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Richard Cohen, announced his resignation Friday, the latest in a series of high-profile departures at the anti-hate organization that have come amid allegations of misconduct and workplace discrimination.

The departure will mark the end of an era at the Montgomery, Ala., nonprofit, whose staff had recently raised questions about whether the organization’s long-standing mission of justice and anti-discrimination — which had yielded hundreds of millions of dollars in donations from the public — had matched its internal treatment of some black and female employees.

“Whatever problems exist at the SPLC happened on my watch, so I take responsibility for them,” Cohen wrote in an email obtained by The Times, while asking the staff to avoid jumping to conclusions before the board completes an internal review of the organization’s work culture.

Whatever problems exist at the SPLC happened on my watch, so I take responsibility for them.
Richard Cohen
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Cohen’s resignation comes the same day as a resignation by the organization’s legal director, Rhonda Brownstein, who did not give a reason for her departure in a brief email to her colleagues. Brownstein did not respond to requests for comment.

Cohen joined the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1986 and became one of its most prominent figures, helping wage legal and public campaigns against far-right groups, including neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.

Under Cohen’s watch, the center had also received frequent criticism for its aggressive fundraising tactics and for its depiction of some right-wing figures as extremists. And the organization had been unable to shake long-standing internal concerns over the diversity of its predominantly white staff and white leadership.

Cohen’s departure comes one week after he fired his longtime partner, Morris Dees — the center’s co-founder, chief trial counsel and its biggest public face for nearly half a century — for undisclosed misconduct, a move that stunned insiders and marked the most significant changing of the guard in the center’s history.

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At 5:03 p.m. Central time Friday, Cohen sent a message to staff, with the subject line “Stepping Down,” announcing that he, too, would be leaving the organization that he and Dees had turned into a research and fundraising juggernaut.

Cohen told staff that he had asked the center’s board of directors in October to start searching for a new president, citing a need for a transition to a new generation of leadership. But “in light of recent events, I’ve asked the board to immediately launch a search for an interim president in order to give the organization the best chance to heal,” Cohen wrote.

Earlier this week, the board of directors announced that it had appointed Tina Tchen, the former chief of staff for former First Lady Michelle Obama, to lead the inquiry into its workplace conditions.

“We’re going through a difficult period right now, and I know that we’ll emerge stronger at the end of the process that we’ve launched with Tina Tchen,” Cohen wrote. “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.”

Cohen said it was an “incredible honor” to have served as the organization’s leader, adding: “Right now, we’re at a critical point in our country’s history. We owe it to those we serve to right the ship and do even greater things in the five decades to come.”

A spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center declined to comment.

The recent resignations came amid staff concerns over the recent resignation of one of the organization’s top black attorneys, Meredith Horton, who wrote in a farewell email that “there is more work to do in the legal department and across the organization to ensure that SPLC is a place where everyone is heard and respected and where the values we are committed to pursuing externally are also being practiced internally.”

Following Horton’s announcement, about two dozen employees signed a letter to management and to the board saying they were concerned that internal “allegations of mistreatment, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and racism threaten the moral authority of this organization and our integrity along with it.”

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In response, the organization’s leaders announced that corrective action would be taken.

matt.pearce@latimes.com

Matt Pearce is a national reporter for The Times. Follow him on Twitter at @mattdpearce.

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