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SPLC fires founder Morris Dees; internal emails highlight issues with harassment, discrimination

Josh Moon

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The Southern Poverty Law Center on Thursday announced that it had fired Morris Dees, the center’s co-founder and long-time public face of the civil rights organization, amid undisclosed allegations that Dees failed to meet the standards of the SPLC.

A statement sent by SPLC president Richard Cohen alluded to issues within the organization that made for a working environment that was lacking in “truth, justice, equity and inclusion.” It promised an internal review by an outside entity to clean up the issues and address employees’ concerns. Those concerns were made known to SPLC leadership in a series of emails sent to SPLC leadership and obtained by APR. 

“As a civil rights organization, the SPLC is committed to ensuring that the conduct of our staff reflects the mission of the organization and the values we hope to instill in the world,” the statement from Cohen read. “When one of our own fails to meet those standards, no matter his or her role in the organization, we take it seriously and must take appropriate action.

In two conversations with APR on Thursday, Dees flatly denied inappropriate behavior, saying any allegations of sexual harassment were “totally untrue.” He also said the statement released by Cohen was “unfortunate,” but then added that he wouldn’t say anything negative against it.

“I love the center and spent my life building it,” Dees said. “I will never say a bad word about it or any of the wonderful people who work there.”

In an earlier conversation, Dees said he believed his firing was more the result of the SPLC’s need to move in a different direction. He also noted his age and that he spent very little time at the center’s headquarters in Montgomery anyway.

Dees, 82, is a polarizing figure — both in Alabama and nationally — drawing deserved praise for the SPLC’s half-century of fights for equality and civil rights and drawing almost equal hatred for what some perceive as a political bias against rightwing political groups.

Not surprisingly, when the SPLC statement hit the media, the rumors and speculation began. Mostly relying on old, disproven allegations, right-leaning politicians and pundits speculated wildly that Dees’ ouster was due to racist behavior or misspending SPLC donations.

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But internal emails obtained by APR related to Dees’ firing appear to show that the problems — which employees said spanned from sexual harassment to gender- and race-based discrimination — were more systemic and widespread, creating an atmosphere over several years in which female and minority employees felt mistreated. The employees also said that they felt their complaints were either not heard or resulted in retaliation from senior staff.

The spark that ignited the near-mutiny at SPLC appears to have been the resignation of senior attorney Meredith Horton, and an email she sent to senior leadership. That email noted the hardships women and employees of color faced at SPLC. It was forwarded by Cohen to all staff with a message that there would be a commitment within SPLC to address those concerns.

An email signed by numerous SPLC employees followed shortly thereafter and made numerous demands. It also laid bare many of the problems that employees have faced over the years.

Specifically, the employees’ email alleged multiple instances of sexual harassment by Dees, and it alleges that reports of his conduct were ignored or covered up by SPLC leadership. A subsequent letter from other SPLC employees demands an investigation into the alleged coverup of Dees’ alleged harassment.  

The emails noted that multiple female SPLC employees had resigned over the years due to the harassment and/or the subsequent retaliation by SPLC leadership when they reported the incidents.

Asked about those allegations, Dees flatly denied them.

“I don’t know who you’re talking to or talking about, but that is not right,” Dees said.

Neither of the letters, though, focused on Dees. Instead, while acknowledging that his firing was a good thing, the SPLC employees are more concerned with the overall atmosphere, which they specifically say goes well beyond Dees. To that end, they demand a number of internal investigations, training courses and new positions created — such as an ombudsman — to adequately protect employees who speak out about mistreatment and discrimination.

Cohen and the rest of the SPLC leadership team appear accepting of those demands, having already promised an investigation by an outside firm.

For Dees, it would appear to be a regrettable ending to an otherwise iconic life and work. Dees and his law partner, Joseph Levin, founded SPLC in 1971 and set about attacking hate groups all over the country.

SPLC was so successful at finding creative approaches to imprison hate group leaders or break apart entire groups that Dees and his organization quickly became the focus of the groups. His offices were firebombed at one point and Dees has lived with 24-hour security at his home in Montgomery for years now.

Dees said he hasn’t tried a case now in at least a decade and his role SPLC had been essentially limited to fundraising — at which he was still quite effective, according to his colleagues. Recent tax filings show the SPLC with more than $450 million despite lofty salaries for its top leaders.

Asked if he was concerned that this apparent end to his career would tarnish his life’s work, Dees said no.

“What we’ve done at SPLC is in history books, in movies and TV shows — it can’t be erased by any one person,” he said. “We’ve done too much good for that.”

 

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Health

Three firefighters, police officer in Mobile test positive for COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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Three firefighters and a police officer in Mobile have tested positive for COVID-19, city officials said Tuesday.

James Barber, executive director of public safety with the city of Mobile, said during a press conference Tuesday that the four city employees tested positive.

The positives come after Mobile-based Synergy Laboratories donated 500 “test kits” and 131 asymptomatic first responders were given the 10-minute rapid blood tests on Monday.  

Barber said the four employees have been quarantined at home until swab tests confirm the virus and physicians provide further guidance.

The rapid blood tests search for antibodies in the blood, which could show a past infection, but not necessarily active infections that are still contagious.

The swab tests will confirm an active infection if one exists. It’s possible the first responders have already recovered from the virus and are no longer contagious.

“That testing continues today,” Barber said of the rapid blood testing of first responders.

Barber said he didn’t have results from Tuesday’s testing yet, but that Monday’s testing resulted in just more than 3 percent of those tested showing positive results for COVID-19. 

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There were 53 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and one death from the virus in Mobile County as of Tuesday evening, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health. 

As of Tuesday evening, there were 999 confirmed COVID-19 cases across Alabama, 13 confirmed deaths from the virus and 23 total reported deaths, some of them not yet confirmed as being caused by the virus.

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Economy

Freelancers, gig workers can begin filing unemployment claims

Chip Brownlee

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Stock Photo

Employees like freelancers and the self-employed can now file for an unemployment claim in Alabama, the Alabama Department of Labor said Tuesday, under the CARES Act, the coronavirus response bill passed by Congress and signed by the president last week.

The Alabama Department of Labor is encouraging employees who believe they may qualify for programs under the CARES Act to file a claim.

These employees will also need to certify weekly to continue to let the department know that they remain unemployed.

Although ADOL does not yet have technical guidance or a start date regarding the CARES Act programs, benefits may be paid retroactively from the time the employee separated from his or her job or otherwise became eligible under the federal CARES Act, not from the time the application was submitted or approved.

In Alabama, many freelancers, independent contractors and the self-employed are not typically able to file for unemployment insurance.

Last week, more than 70,000 people filed an initial jobless claim. Claims can be filed online at www.labor.alabama.gov or by calling 1-866-234-5382.

The Department of Labor is asking for patience when trying to file a claim.

ADOL says employees who may be affected include:

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  • The self-employed
  • Church employees
  • Non-profit and governmental employees
  • Independent contractors
  • Gig economy workers
  • Those who have exhausted their regular UI benefits.

These employees should also meet one of these conditions:

  • The individual has been diagnosed; or
  • A member of the individual’s household has been diagnosed; or
  • The individual is providing care to a household or family member; or
  • A child or other person for which the individual has primary caregiving responsibility is unable to attend school or another facility as a result of COVID-19; or
  • The individual is unable to reach the place of employment because of a quarantine imposed as a result of the COVID-19 public health emergency; or
  • The individual is unable to reach the place of employment because the individual has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine; or
  • The individual was scheduled to start work and does not have a job as a result of COVID-19; or
  • The individual has become “the breadwinner or major support for a household because the head of the household has died as a direct result of COVID-19”; or
  • The individual has to quit their job because of COVID-19; or
  • The individual’s place of employment is closed because of COVID-19.

This list is not exhaustive.

Further details regarding the CARES Act programs will be forthcoming, the department says, including information regarding Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, which provides for an additional $600 a week in unemployment compensation benefits.

The additional $600 weekly benefit will only be available for weeks beginning March 29, 2020

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Health

Two hospital employees in Huntsville test positive for COVID-19

Chip Brownlee

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Stock Photo/Huntsville, Alabama

A physician and another employee at Crestwood Medical Center in Huntsville, Alabama, have tested positive for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the hospital said Tuesday.

“Crestwood Medical Center learned that 2 of our associates (one physician and one employee) have tested positive for COVID-19,” spokesperson Lori Light said in a statement Tuesday.

One is in the hospital for care while the other is at home under quarantine.

The hospital has also had two patients test positive in the Emergency Department, but neither of the patients needed inpatient care, the spokesperson said.

“Working in coordination with the health department, we are following established CDC procedures to identify and communicate directly with any potentially exposed staff and patients,” the Crestwood Medical Center spokesperson said.

Overall, there are at least 13 COVID-19 patients in Madison County, the hospital’s CEO Dr. Pam Hudson said Tuesday during a briefing.

There are 11 inpatients at Huntsville Hospital’s facilities, according to Huntsville Hospital spokesperson Susan Esslinger.

In Alabama, the number of positive cases is nearing 1,000. At least 23 deaths related to COVID-19 have been reported. The Alabama Department of Public Health has officially confirmed 13.

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Crime

Alabama inmate killed by another inmate at Ventress Correctional

Eddie Burkhalter

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via the Alabama Department of Corrections

A Birmingham man serving at Ventress Correctional Facility in Clayton was killed by another inmate, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections. 

Dennis Benson, 40, who was serving a 36-month sentence for possession of a controlled substance and receiving stolen property, died March 30 after being attacked by another inmate, ADOC said in a statement. 

“The ADOC condemns all violence in its facilities, and the fatal actions taken against Benson by another inmate are being thoroughly investigated,” the department said in a statement.

Benson’s cause of death is pending a full autopsy, and more information will be available upon the conclusion of the investigation into his death, according to the department. 

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