Member data is latest ammo in battle of Oklahoma pubmedia organizations

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In the escalating conflict between Oklahoma’s public TV network and its former fundraising arm, the foundation has threatened to “destroy” membership data it claims to own.

According to court documents, the request from the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority Foundation prompted PBS to “hold … in confidence” all donor data for OETA members who have access to the video-on-demand service Passport. PBS has locked down that membership information until the network or its former foundation establishes legal ownership of the data.

Anderson

The foundation is attempting to block OETA’s access to other crucial fundraising data, including donor information managed by Allegiance Fundraising Group, according to the filing. OETA President Polly Anderson told Current that OETA Foundation President Daphne Dowdy and her board “refuse to turn over needed and sensitive information including but not limited to donor data, underwriting contracts and gift restrictions.”

The foundation’s move to lock down data has hobbled all fundraising activities by the state network, according to OETA’s court document.

The standoff surfaced in a filing Friday by OETA. It joined the Oklahoma Attorney General in asking the district court to appoint a third-party receiver to distribute assets of the OETA Foundation after the network severed their relationship after 36 years. OETA created a new nonprofit to manage its fundraising.

Dowdy told Current that the foundation “simply asked PBS to be sure to keep our donor data private until the case with OETA is resolved.”

OETA’s latest filing also details a fight over production of the program guide. The foundation will not relinquish control of the guide and is using the publication “to transmit damaging and inaccurate material to OETA supporters and viewers,” the filing said.

OETA’s partnership with the foundation soured following the network’s attempt to update a 1992 contract that defined the roles and responsibilities of the sibling organizations. The foundation rejected the proposed agreement and fought to reassert control of its assets. When OETA severed ties to the nonprofit, the foundation refused to leave its offices within OETA headquarters in Oklahoma City.

In the document, OETA also describes the root of the problem as “a power grab” by the foundation, with Dowdy “methodically scheming to take control of the foundation and ultimately create a power-center for herself from where she can unduly influence and control OETA, a state agency.”

Membership tug-of-war

While the dispute drags on, OETA’s Passport membership rolls remain in limbo.

The information is stored in the PBS Membership Vault, or MVault, which donors access to activate new Passport accounts. The MVault captures and stores certain member data for PBS member stations. The on-demand video member benefit has become a significant source of membership revenue for stations.

PBS counsel Craig Sperling informed Anderson in a Jan. 18 email of the foundation’s request “to refrain from providing to any party, including OETA, access to donor information maintained in PBS systems … and to destroy such information.”

Dowdy

Dowdy told Current that fundraising organizations often work with vendors such as PBS “to handle tasks which require them to have limited access to donor data.” The vendors agree “not to share that data with outside entities,” she said.

The foundation “simply asked PBS to be sure to keep our donor data private until the case with OETA is resolved,” Dowdy said. If PBS hadn’t agreed to the request, she said, “we would have wanted PBS to destroy the foundation’s donor data, just like any former vendor with access to confidential data.”

In Sperling’s email, he told Anderson that the foundation “has asserted” that the OETA donor information “is a proprietary asset of the foundation.”

“It is ludicrous for the foundation to make this claim,” OETA said in the filing Friday.

The foundation also instructed Allegiance Fundraising Group to deny the station access to donor information, according to OETA’s document.

That prompted Bill Tiedeman, Allegiance account executive, to email Anderson: “We have a letter from the foundation that is saying we cannot share the data with anyone else, and yours that says we can, and that leaves us in a vulnerable position.”

Tiedeman also said that Allegiance “heard back from our lawyer” who advised to “not do anything differently” until the litigation has ended.

Without an agreement with Allegiance, OETA said in the filing, any fundraising by the network’s new nonprofit “cannot be properly facilitated because the foundation controls OETA’s credit card system as well as donor information.”

The foundation’s hold over membership information is also jeopardizing the network’s Community Service Grant eligibility, OETA said in the filing. CPB directs stations to “maintain active control of contributor and donor lists” to comply with the Communications Act, a requirement for CSGs.

“The foundation puts OETA in a position in which it risks noncompliance with CPB guidelines, cannot raise funds for operations and programming, or defend itself against the foundation’s frequent multifarious attacks by communicating directly with its donors,” according to the document.

‘Like the Hatfields and McCoys’

The foundation is directly communicating with donors through the OETA program guide, Odyssey, OETA said. According to the filing, OETA “temporarily transferred” production of the monthly magazine to the foundation; the document does not indicate when.

But by August 2018, control of the guide had sparked another contentious disagreement.

Former foundation board Chair James Utterback wrote an Aug. 7, 2018, email to Dowdy — “with the full authority of the Board of Trustees” — directing her to “immediately turn over all control and documentation requested by Ms. Anderson” regarding the production of Odyssey.

Utterbeck referenced an “earlier pronouncement” that the board wanted foundation staffers to “fully cooperate with OETA and support OETA.”

Dowdy did not agree. Utterbeck resigned from the foundation board one week after his email to Dowdy, citing her noncompliance.

In Dowdy’s column in last month’s Odyssey, she told readers: “I am writing today to let you know that we are devastated and just as perplexed by the unfolding of recent events as you may be.”

The foundation, its board and staff, she wrote, “remain OETA’s biggest fans.”

“We feel OETA’s decision to disassociate itself with OETA Foundation and develop its own nonprofit is a mistake, but it is a decision that OETA is free to make,” Dowdy wrote.

Dowdy also directed readers to the foundation’s new website for more information. “I encourage you to read the legal documents for yourself and form your own opinion,” she added.

The piece is headlined “IMPORTANT MESSAGE FROM THE PRESIDENT.”

And so the legal stalemate continues. The foundation has until April 1 to respond to the attorney general’s motion to appoint a third-party receiver.

But the OETA document also provides a look at the emotional toll the dispute is taking on staff inside headquarters in Oklahoma City.

Relationships “have gotten so bad in the last couple years where they’re shouting at each other in the hallways,” said former OETA Foundation President Robert Allen in a deposition, referring to network and foundation staffers.

“Like the Hatfields and McCoys, they’ve got … both camps in the building,” Allen said, “and it’s just incredibly bad.”

Read OETA’s filing:

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