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Missionary group says vendor holding website hostage

February 4, 2011

A local not-for-profit that supports Baptist missionaries says its former IT vendor is holding its website hostage—potentially hampering the safety of people working abroad.

Evangelical Baptist Missions Inc., based in Indianapolis, filed a federal lawsuit in late January against the Beracha Foundation, a not-for-profit information technology company in Ohio, alleging conversion, unjust enrichment and violation of the anti-cybersquatting act. The suit charges that Beracha refuses to relinquish control of EBM’s Internet domains and website functions unless it receives certain payments.

Many businesses find themselves in similar predicaments because they let outside consultants hold the keys to their online presence, said Kenan Farrell, an Indianapolis Internet and intellectual-property lawyer. Companies need to make sure they have possession of their domain names and any other administrative credentials, he said.

“You don’t want to have this discussion after things have gone south,” he said.

Bill Rosier, an executive at Evangelical Baptist Missions, referred questions to attorney Ryan Bowers at Kroger Gardis & Regas. Bowers did not return phone messages.

Beracha Executive Director Dana Dunmyer did not respond to messages left at the office in Maineville, Ohio, near Cincinnati. Dunmyer also is principal of TQI Net, a for-profit IT company that operates from the same offices.

Evangelical Baptist Missions’ main website, www.ebm.org, is still live, but the portal it uses to communicate with missionaries, along with web-based donation and accounting software, stopped working sometime after President David Culver severed his relationship with Beracha in early January, the lawsuit says.

Beracha issued a statement Friday saying it has allowed EBM "to continue to conduct business without interruption. In no way have the missionaries been placed at risk, and in no way has Beracha interfered with EBM and the missionaries' ability to collect and access funds."

The statement added: "We are saddened by EBM's rush to litigation with false allegations."

Dunmyer and Beracha employees had served on EBM’s board of trustees, but the missionary group switched vendors because of “overpriced” and “drastically escalating” fees, the lawsuit says.

Through EBM’s web portal, missionaries receive information on contributions that support them, report expenses and request money, the suit says.

“The site also provides crucial and immediate assistance, both logistic and financial, in the event of an emergency and/or a need for evacuation of missionaries.”

EBM has evacuated missionaries in the past, and the lawsuit says, “In some such instances, effective operation of the website portal can be integral to the well-being and/or safety of missionaries and their families.”

Evangelical Baptist Missions started in 1928 under the name “Africa Christian Missions” to sponsor the work of one pastor in the former French West Africa.

EBM promotes missionary work in several regions of the world while providing behind-the-scenes support. Formerly based in Kokomo, the headquarters moved to the northwest side of Indianapolis in 2004.

Rosier declined to talk about EBM, other than to note that the Internal Revenue Service doesn’t require religious groups to file tax returns.

Evangelical Baptist Missions says it registered its main site in 1997 and its video site, www.harvestproductions.org, in 2000. Beracha administered the domains by hosting them on its servers and paying yearly fees, which EBM reimbursed.

EBM claims that, at some unspecified time, Beracha listed Connie Dunmyer as the registrant for the domain names, which gives her the sole authority to transfer them to EBM or its new vendor.

Both domains are set to expire this year, ebm.org in May and harvestproductions.org in August, publicly available registry information shows. The registrant is the person who receives e-mail notices about impending expirations and typically carries out renewals.

Culver, who became EBM’s president last year, sent a letter to Dana Dunmyer on Jan. 10, asking him to turn over access to the domain names and software credentials. Dunmyer refused, unless EBM would “cover the costs for providing the information,” including a $1,000 retainer, the lawsuit says.

A few days later, Dunmyer sent a second e-mail that offered two choices, the suit says. EBM could either agree to a new annual contract, which would cost more than $67,000, and pay $30,342 for “alleged violations of other agreements unrelated to IT services,” plus $2,000 in setup fees. At the end of the one-year contract, Beracha would transition all data to a new vendor, at a cost to be determined.

The second option was for EBM to pay $125,821 to fulfill “agreements,” and Beracha would move all data to a new vendor, again for an undetermined fee.

EBM claims that Dunmyer has refused to provide copies of the agreements that formed the basis of his demands.

Beracha, which markets website design for churches, had been working for EBM since 2005, but as of January, the two organizations had no written contract, EBM’s suit claims.

Back in 2008, however, EBM provided Dunmyer with power of attorney, but that was only so he could “work on behalf of EBM in negotiations with Blackbaud,” a leading software vendor to not-for-profits, the lawsuit says. EBM uses Blackbaud’s e-Tapestry software for donation management and Financial Edge for accounting.

EBM and Beracha also entered into a “shared CFO” consulting agreement, though the lawsuit doesn’t specify when or for what reason.

Dunmyer was an officer of EBM “until recently,” and other Beracha employees have served as officers at various times, the suit says.

The suit claims that EBM has paid all its software fees through Beracha, yet still owes Blackbaud more than $7,000 for use of the accounting software. “Beracha has these funds.”

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