The Southern Poverty Law Center fired Morris Dees, the nonprofit civil rights organization's co-founder and former chief litigator.

SPLC President Richard Cohen said in a statement Dees' dismissal over his misconduct was effective on Wednesday, March 13. When pressed for details on what led to the termination, the organization declined to elaborate.

"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," Cohen said in the emailed statement. "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."

Dees, 82, co-founded the Montgomery-based organization in 1971. 

"It was not my decision, what they did," Dees said when reached by phone. "I wish the center the absolute best. Whatever reasons they had of theirs, I don't know."

On Thursday, he said he hadn't tried a case in at least a decade and hadn't recently been involved in the day-to-day operations of the SPLC. 

Dees' termination is one of several steps taken by the organization this week, Cohen said. 

"Today we announced a number of immediate, concrete next steps we’re taking, including bringing in an outside organization to conduct a comprehensive assessment of our internal climate and workplace practices, to ensure that our talented staff is working in the environment that they deserve — one in which all voices are heard and all staff members are respected," Cohen said.

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Southern Poverty Law Center

What the SPLC wants the "next steps" to address or correct remains unclear. An SPLC spokesperson said the organization was "in the process of hiring" the firm for the workplace climate assessment, and no other leadership changes had been announced. 

A message seeking further comment was left on Cohen’s cell phone Thursday afternoon.

"I’ve read the statement they issued," Dees said when asked if he knew why he was fired. "I feel like some of the things in the statement were unfortunate. But I refuse to say anything negative about the center or its employees. I’ll let my life’s work and reputation speak for itself."

When asked if he was offered the chance to resign or retire, the 82-year-old said, "I've told you all I can tell you."

Dees' biography appeared scrubbed from the SPLC's website as news broke of his termination on Thursday afternoon. 

Morris Dees, SPLC funding and civil rights cases

A Montgomery native, Dees attended Sidney Lanier High School. He burnished his marketing chops by managing a direct sale book publishing company while attending the University of Alabama, where he also earned a law degree. 

After returning home to establish a law practice in 1960, Dees won a series of civil rights cases before establishing the SPLC with lawyer Joseph J. Levin Jr. and civil rights activist Julian Bond a decade later.

The legal partnership netted significant civil rights triumphs. Dees challenged systemic discrimination and segregation in Alabama state trooper ranks in a case won in the U.S. Supreme Court. SPLC litigation challenging Alabama's legislative districts forced the state to redraw its districts in the early 1970s, leading to the election of more than a dozen black legislators in 1974.

Early SPLC lawsuits also fought for better conditions for cotton mill workers in Kentucky, women in the workplace and poor defendants on death row. The organization bankrupted a Ku Klux Klan Organization, the United Klans of America, in a 1987 civil case. 

Dees has been a fixture in politics since the group's ascension, though his organization has faced scrutiny in the past.

A 1994 Montgomery Advertiser series provided a deep look into the organization controlled by the multimillionaire Dees, illustrating his near-singular control over the organization and its mammoth budget.

The series, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, revealed a figure seen as heroic by some and single-minded by others. Dees' critics said he was more concerned with fundraising than litigating. 

The series also alleged discriminatory treatment of black employees within the advocacy group, despite its outward efforts to improve the treatment of minorities in the country. Staffers at the time “accused Morris Dees, the center’s driving force, of being a racist and black employees have ‘felt threatened and banded together.’” The organization denied the accusations raised in the series.

Attorneys Fred Gray and Morris Dees attend a dinner to kick off Faulkner University's Fred Gray Civil Rights Symposium on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012, at the Embassy in Montgomery. (Montgomery Advertiser, Amanda Sowards)

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Southern Poverty Law Center President Emeritus Julian Bond, left, and founder Morris Dees at the SPLC's 40th Anniversary Celebration on Saturday April 30, 2011 at the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, Ala.(Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

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Milton McGregor and Morris Dees talk during a dinner to kick off Faulkner University's Fred Gray Civil Rights Symposium on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012, at the Embassy in Montgomery. (Montgomery Advertiser, Amanda Sowards)

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Speakers, Morris Dees, Vann Newkirk, Gwendolyn Boyd and Fred Gray pose following the Montgomery Advertiser 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March Celebration at the Capitol City Club in Montgomery, Ala. on Tuesday March 10, 2015.

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Morris Dees hugs supporter Donald McGrath at the Southern Poverty Law Center's 40th Anniversary Celebration on Saturday April 30, 2011 at the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, Ala.(Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

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Morris Dees performs with Willie King at Old Alabama Town on Saturday, June 15, 2008. (Montgomery Advertiser, Amanda Sowards)

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November 13, 2007 - Southern Poverty Law Center co-founder Morris Dees, right, visits with Justin Downer while eating lunch with students during the Mix It Up at Lunch Day program at Floyd Elementary School in Montgomery, Ala. on Tuesday November 13, 2007. Mix It Up is part of the Teaching Tolerance program. 10,000 schools and over four million students are taking part in the program. (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

Morris Dees speaks at Alabama State University's Bridge Builders Breakfast at the RSA Activity Center on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012 in Montgomery, Ala.. (Lloyd Gallman, Montgomery Advertiser)

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Southern Poverty Law Center director Morris Dees at the E.D. Nixon Foundation Annual Recognition Luncheon on Sunday, March 1, 2009. (Montgomery Advertiser, Amanda Sowards)

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Southern Poverty Law Center founder Morris Dees.

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Morris Dees

Morris Dees speaks at Troy University on Wednesday.

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Morris Dees is a co-founder of the Southern Poverty

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Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law

Morris Dees, from left, Lecia Brooks, Richard Cohen

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The Selma to Montgomery March arrives at the State

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Governor Robert Bentley, Bernice King, Peggy Wallace

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Morris Dees speaks during a rally at the state capitol

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Richard Cohen, left, and Morris Dees, right, both of

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Magi Williams chats with Morris Dees following the

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Henry Pugh greets  Morris Dees during the Montgomery

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Morris Dees speaks during the Montgomery Advertiser

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Speakers, Morris Dees, Vann Newkirk, Gwendolyn Boyd

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Speakers, Morris Dees, Vann Newkirk, Gwendolyn Boyd

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Speakers Morris Dees, and Gwendolyn Boyd look on during

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Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, right, stands with Kerry Kennedy, human rights activist and daughter of Robert Kennedy, at the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala. during a tour by a congressional delegation on Saturday March 5, 2011. The group is touring civil rights locations and will attend the annual Bloody Sunday observance in Selma, Ala. on Sunday March 6, 2011. (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

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Morris Dees plays the harmonica during the memorial service for Nick LaTour at Hutchinson Missionary Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. on Saturday April 2, 2011. (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

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Morris Dees, left, and David Rains present a poster award to Jelan Smith. Alvin Benn/Special to the Advertiser
<br ab>Morris Dees, left and David Rains present a poster award to Jelan (cq) Smith of Mixon Elementary School in Ozark at Wednesday's Law Day program. . 5-1-13

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November 13, 2007 - Southern Poverty Law Center co-founder Morris Dees, right, visits with Jakira Hall, left, while eating lunch with students during the Mix It Up at Lunch Day program at Floyd Elementary School in Montgomery, Ala. on Tuesday November 13, 2007. Mix It Up is part of the Teaching Tolerance program. 10,000 schools and over four million students are taking part in the program. (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

November 13, 2007 - Southern Poverty Law Center co-founder Morris Dees, right, pauses to chat with Eboni Graham, left, in the cafeteria at Floyd Elementary school during the Mix It Up at Lunch Day program at the school in Montgomery, Ala. on Tuesday November 13, 2007. Mix It Up is part of the Teaching Tolerance program. 10,000 schools and over four million students are taking part in the program. (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

Nov. 27, 2007 -- Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, was awarded the March of Dimes Citizen of the Year on Tuesday at Wynlakes Country Club. (Montgomery Advertiser, Amanda Sowards)

Southern Poverty Law Center founder Morris Dees speaks at the SPLC's 40th Anniversary Celebration on Saturday April 30, 2011 at the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, Ala.(Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

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"I would hope the IRS and the Justice Department would take this as [an] opportunity to come in and take a close look at The Center, it's finances and it's day-to-day operations," said Jim Tharpe, managing editor of the Advertiser in the mid-1990s, who oversaw the Advertiser series. "It's long overdue."

Dees' central role in the organization has also led to numerous threats against him, and the Advertiser previously reported that he has 24-hour protection at his home.

SPLC a war chest of funds that dwarfs over NAACP and Equal Justice Initiative

Over the years, the SPLC has continued to amass massive funds from donors amid differing levels of scrutiny. The nonprofit has hundreds of employees and offices in four states. The organization had nearly $450 million in net assets, according to publicly available tax documents filed for 2017.

That figure easily dwarfs other civil rights groups — such as the Equal Justice Initiative and the NAACP — during the same time frame. The Montgomery-based EJI had about $57 million in net assets at that time and the NAACP had about $3.8 million.

SPLC still fell behind other groups, like the American Civil Liberties Union, which pulled in more than $526 million between its main nonprofit and foundation in 2017 filings, with several local groups collecting additional millions of dollars not included in that figure.

In recent years, the organization has become nationally known and scrutinized for its Hatewatch worktracking the rise of hate groups, particularly white supremacists.

It produces research and advocacy work on a variety of topics, including payday lending, civil asset forfeiture and immigration rights. The SPLC also continues day-to-day civil rights litigation, including an ongoing lawsuit to address prison conditions in Alabama.

“The SPLC is deeply committed to having a workplace that reflects the values it espouses — truth, justice, equity and inclusion, and we believe the steps we have taken today reaffirm that commitment," Cohen said.

Brian Lyman contributed to this report.