SAN DIEGO (CN) – A lawsuit filed in California last week claims the fact-check news site Snopes.com has been caught up in its own concealment scheme, in an ownership spat that has left the site’s personnel matters in limbo.
Internet media management company Proper Media sued Bardav Inc. and its owner David Mikkelson over the “unlawful jockeying for ownership and control of the fact-checking website Snopes.com,” which gained a national profile during the presidential election last year and “recently entered into a high-profile agreement with Facebook to integrate fact-checking services into its social media platform,” according to the 16-page lawsuit filed in San Diego Superior Court on May 4.
Mikkelson and his ex-wife Barbara founded Bardav – which owns the Snopes website – in 2003, and each owned a 50 percent shared in the company. When the two divorced, Barbara Mikkelson sold her share to Proper Media last July.
While Proper Media was already managing a significant amount of the operation of Snopes including all content and advertising accounts prior to acquiring shares in the company, the company says in its complaint that when its individual shareholders, including Vincent Green, gained a stake in Snopes a scam was launched to take over the website – one of the 1,000 most popular in the United States.
But Proper Media says in its complaint that Mikkelson “was unhappy that Barbara maintained ownership of half of what he always considered to be his company after the divorce.”
Thus, Proper Media says, Green and Mikkelson conspired to gain majority control of Bardav and Snopes.com. Mikkelson and Green blocked its access to “personnel, accounts, tools and data necessary to manage Snopes,” according to the lawsuit.
“Mikkelson, in conjunction with Green, intentionally did block Proper Media’s access to personnel, accounts, tools and data to take over Snopes and to prevent Proper Media from performing under the general services agreement,” Proper Media says in its lawsuit.
The company also accuses Mikkelson of misusing Bardav funds and says he was improperly reimbursed for legal fees related to his divorce and travel expenses from when he went on a honeymoon to Asia late last year with his new bride – Snopes employee Elyssa Young.
Meanwhile, Green removed $10,000 worth of computer equipment used by three Proper Media employees before sending his resignation to Proper Media from a Snopes email account, according to Proper Media’s lawsuit. The company also accuses him of blocking its founders – plaintiffs Christopher Richmond and Drew Schoentrup – from accessing Snopes’ content-management system.
Additionally, Proper Media says Green removed Snopes-related data from its online communication tools including Slack and Asana. The company says Green admitted he did not complete work for Proper Media from the start of the alleged conspiracy in January up until his resignation April 3, even though the company paid him and contributed to his health insurance premiums, according to the lawsuit.
Proper Media is still responsible for operating the content-management system for Snopes, though access to the system remains blocked for Proper Media employees, the lawsuit says.
The company filed a separate lawsuit against Green, who was a minority shareholder of Proper Media when the Snopes deal went through. He is listed on the Snopes.com “Staff” webpage as having a role in “business development.”
Proper Media says in its lawsuit that Mikkelson’s behavior amounts to abuse of control of Bardav and corporate waste, with Mikkelson breaching his fiduciary duty to Bardav and Proper Media’s shareholders who had a financial stake in Bardav.
Mikkelson also terminated the contract between Proper Media and Bardav and removed the company’s access to a business bank account, according to the lawsuit.
In an emailed statement, Bardav called Proper Media’s lawsuit “frivolous” and said it intends to file a lawsuit of its own.
“Bardav Inc., the owner of Snopes.com, recently terminated an agreement for Proper Media to provide development and ad tech services to the Snopes.com website. This baseless lawsuit was filed just before the effective date of the termination and appears to be an effort by Proper Media to retaliate against Bardav for that termination and to impede the company’s plans to transition from Proper Media to a new services provider,” the statement said.
“Bardav and its founder, David Mikkelson, intend to vigorously defend against this frivolous action and to pursue the company’s own claims against Proper Media arising from Proper’s failure to perform its obligations and its efforts to interfere with the success of the Snopes.com business.”
Proper Media seeks damages and a declaration that it is the beneficial owner of 50 percent of the equity in Bardav.
Karl Kronenberger of San Francisco represents Proper Media. He said the company had no comment.