Eagle-Tribune investigation reveals public official is making “six figures for little work”

For more than a month, Eagle-Tribune reporters Keith Eddings and Gretchen M. Putnam tailed Philip F. Laverriere Sr., the executive director of one of the top anti-poverty agencies in Lawrence, Mass., after an anonymous tip suggested he was absent from his office more often than not. Eddings and Putnam found that official whose six-figure salary is paid with state and federal tax dollars was spending most afternoons at the local Elks Lodge.

Typically, Laverriere showed up for work at the agency’s headquarters on Essex Street within a few minutes of 9 a.m. and left work within a few minutes of noon for the 10- or 15-minute drive in his Cadillac DeVille over the Merrimack River to the club. He typically stayed at the club for two to five hours, then went directly to his home on Ames Street.

It’s a schedule Laverriere told the Eagle-Tribune he wouldn’t accept from any of his employees.

Read the story from the Eagle-Tribune.

Callie Crosley Show spotlights latest Watchdog story on city-run community centers

Last week Sue O’Connell, for the Callie Crosley Show, interviewed Dorchester Reporter’s managing editor Bill Forry on the latest story from the Watchdog New England and Dorchester Reporter collaboration. “It’s hit or miss at city-run centers” takes a look at whether the Boston Centers for Youth & Families in Dorchester are meeting the promised goals of a safe, enriching environment for children and social programs for adults. Forry talks to O’Connell about what is and isn’t working in his neighborhood’s four centers. Joining their conversation is Peter Kadzis, executive editor of The Boston Phoenix.

Listen in here.

What makes a community news organization relevant in the age of Facebook?

William Forry, managing editor of the Dorchester Reporter

By William P. Forry

That’s the question that keeps many publishers and managing editors awake at night. And if it doesn’t, it should.

Most people are now the managing editors of their own community news outlets. They use Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media sites to push information that used to be the exclusive domain of newspapers.

They share details of the upcoming parish turkey fry. They post photos of the Little League championship game. They swap gossip about the stately blue house down the street that was just re-painted a ghastly green color. What were these new owners thinking?!

These staples of community newspapers can still be found in the pages of our community newspaper, The Dorchester Reporter. Hopefully, that will remain the case for years to come.

But, our readers have always expected more from their community paper. And, now, they should demand more.

We all have plenty of other options at our fingertips for sharing information. But information is not necessarily news. We still need journalists to sort the chaff from the wheat and to put things in context and perspective.

What remains in short supply at the community level are journalists who spend every workday compiling what Harvard Kennedy School’s Alex Jones describes as the “iron core” of reported news. They attend the school board hearings and civic association meetings. They don’t just monitor the police and fire radio for the latest incident— they chronicle the trends and press public safety officials for explanations on crime strategies and deployment.

These reporters are not stenographers. They analyze and scrutinize. They press for answers and hold public officials— elected and appointed— and other community leaders accountable.

And, importantly, these iron core reporters and editors don’t sit back and wait for the next press release to chart their course. They know their communities so well — and are confident enough in their own sources and judgment— that they can initiate important enterprise stories that can have a meaningful impact.

That’s what we’ve always strived to do at the Reporter.

Shortly after my parents started the Reporter back in 1983, a jumbo jet on approach to Logan Airport came within seconds of landing on a busy roadway in our neighborhood, Morrissey Boulevard. A catastrophe was narrowly averted, but windows were blown out in homes and cars all over the neighborhood. People wanted to know what happened. The Reporter filed a Freedom of Information Act — our first— to get the cockpit recordings and an FAA report on the incident. The pilot had mistaken the street lamps on Morrissey for the runway at Logan.

We’ve been breaking stories like this for more than 25 years now.

But our capacity to pull off these kinds of in-depth, investigative reports has always been limited. When Walter Robinson — the founder and director of Watchdog New England— first approached us with the idea of partnering with his students to conduct long-format, enterprise stories, we leapt at the opportunity.

So far, the Watchdog Team based at the Reporter and led by former Boston Globe Spotlight Team reporter Stephen Kurkjian have assembled five investigative reports that we’ve published in our paper and online. We’ve scrutinized the lack of programming at city-run community centers and the Strand Theatre; we’ve tracked the proliferation of so-called “sober homes” in city neighborhoods and uncovered new information about illegal gun trafficking that fuels shootings and homicides in Boston. And we’ve documented the rising need for public assistance in Dorchester, where one in three people are now using food stamps to buy groceries every month.

Compelling journalism like this is the backbone of social media links and comments. And community newspapers — and/or their online companions— will survive well into the future if they do these kinds of stories and do them well. That’s our charge at the Reporter and we’re thrilled to have partners like Northeastern University, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, who share our enthusiasm and vision.

It’s hit or miss at city-run centers; Despite calls for reform, some still get little use

The Cleveland Community Center sat empty on a recent weekday afternoon. Photo by Stephen Kurkjian

By Stephen Kurkjian, Rachel Zarrell, and Gal Tziperman Lotan, Special To The Reporter

Moments after the buzzer sounded ending classes for the day, a dozen Harbor Middle School students burst through the doors connecting the Fields Corner school to the Cleveland Community Center, one of 38 such facilities established by the city to provide a variety of after-school athletic, arts, and tutoring programs for kids just like them. The youths seemed raring to go.

But the Cleveland, with no educational or arts programs in place, was hardly ready for them. So the students rushed over to the back corner of the room, pulling money out of their pockets, and stopped at the vending machines.  After they had bought their fill of snacks and soda, they exited as boisterously as they had entered, leaving the center’s large recreation room empty and in silence, save for the sounds from a courtroom drama droning from a wide-screen television on the wall.

Seven years after the Menino administration pledged widespread reforms in the wake of a scathing management report that had found weak leadership throughout Boston Centers for Youth & Families (BCYF) and inadequate levels of programming at the facilities, improvements at many of the community centers remain a case of promises unmet.

Although centers in some neighborhoods are meeting the primary goals of providing an enriching, safe environment for children outside of school time, as well as active social programs for adults in the community, a majority of the centers, including two of the four that are located in Dorchester, are falling short of the mark articulated just last month by their director.

On Maintaining Balance, the Confrontational Interview and Database Reporting

By Jesse Nankin

The Day reporters Jenna Cho and Karin Crompton

Journalists don’t always know where their next big story will come from. They may get an idea walking down the street or from a casual conversation on the train. Or they may find that a small feature story is really much more. This was the case for Jenna Cho and Karin Crompton, reporters with New London’s The Day. What started out as a holiday feature turned into an in-depth profile of Michael Calo, the founding pastor of Shoreline Church Inc., in Old Lyme, Conn., who also happens to have a larceny conviction.

Cho and Crompton examined detailed financial documents and criminal and employment records, searched databases and spoke to countless acquaintances of Calo to piece together his past, while making sense of his present.

Watchdog New England asked Cho and Crompton to share with New England’s journalists their thoughts on maintaining balance in such a complex piece and handling a confrontational interview, as well as talk about the tools on which they relied to build their story.

Q: What tipped you off to this story?

Cho: I’d planned on doing a holiday feature about the church moving into its new home just in time for Christmas. Before I wrote the story, I ran the pastor’s name through the Connecticut criminal database system and found the larceny conviction. I called Calo to give him a chance to explain the conviction, but instead, Calo denied it outright; he even provided a fake date of birth.

We decided to hold the story while I checked things out. Once I knew that Calo had lied about the conviction, I knew there was more he wasn’t telling me.

Crompton: When Calo first lied to Jenna regarding the larceny, it was a huge red flag to all of us. I offered to help verify other aspects of his life – the church, the businesses, other public records, any interviews we might need to do.

Q: Why did you decide to check Michael Calo’s criminal history?

Cho: I’d talked to Calo once before, in 2009, for a story about the church’s interest in buying the chapel property [Shoreline Church purchased a chapel from Christ the King Parish]. That interview was conducted over the phone, and I didn’t think twice about who Calo might have been before he became a pastor.

I can’t pinpoint the exact reason why I decided to check on Calo’s background this time around, but I had a gut feeling after my in-person interview with him that something didn’t quite add up.

Q: How did you discover that the birth date Calo initially gave you was wrong?

We asked Calo for his date of birth in order to double-check his identity. I wanted to rule out the possibility that there were, as Calo claimed, two Michael P. Calos floating around – one with a criminal record and one without.

The criminal database lists convicted felons’ birth month and year, information that matched up with what was on Nexis for a Michael P. Calo at the pastor’s current home address. His birth year also matched the age he gave me during the interview.

A breakthrough for us came when I checked Calo’s Facebook page. His birthday in the info box said February 11, but a handful of people had posted birthday wishes on his “Wall” on March 8, his actual birthday.

Q: Describe some of the databases/resources on which you relied to uncover the details of his past and current activities?

We started by checking public records for everything we could think of: criminal record, business filings, nonprofit filings, DMV records, marriage and divorce records, any potential state or federal lawsuits (through PACER, which also provides info on bankruptcy filings).

For our online searches, we first went to Nexis (unfortunately we don’t have Accurint here) to get the basics for his criminal record and other information like past addresses and his correct birth date.

We searched the Connecticut Secretary of the State’s online database for business filings (we later obtained the church’s incorporation papers by calling the Secretary of the State’s office); and Guidestar, for nonprofit reporting.

We also did a basic Google search, which is where we discovered his newsletter. [Calo had been publishing financial advice newsletters that the Commodity Futures Trading Commission called “highly misleading” and ordered him to stop.]We later verified the authenticity of the federal order to stop publishing the newsletters with federal regulation agencies.

We checked Calo’s personal Facebook page and the Facebook page of the church, Twitter and the Shoreline Church website.

We went to several town halls to check on mortgage filings and building permits. That’s where we found information on the lien filed against his house and also verified that a complainant’s daughter had been involved in a short sale.

We did a background check on Calo through the Connecticut state police to see if he’d been convicted of any other crimes in Connecticut and outside the state (he hadn’t). We made phone calls to various agencies both in Connecticut and around the country to get our hands on records such as police incident reports; DMV records; the arrest warrant; and mug shot from the larceny conviction.

As a side note, the mug shot was one of the first ways we verified that it was, indeed, the same Michael P. Calo who had the criminal record and not a cousin, as he had claimed.

By then, we had a lot of names of people Calo had been in business with, people who had complained to police and people who attended the church. Then it became a matter of reaching out to some of those people.

Q: What would you pinpoint as one of the significant stumbling blocks in reporting this story?

Cho: The FOIA can be a reporter’s best friend, and it served us well for this story. We learned early on, though, to cut our losses when we couldn’t find old documents because they’d been destroyed. Courts sadly don’t hold onto lawsuits forever, and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) destroys tax returns after seven years.

Obtaining documents or even getting any straight answers from the IRS was a bit tricky. I had some trouble getting hold of an IRS representative on the phone, though I did get some help via e-mail. Still, answers to what I thought were pretty simple questions – for instance, do churches have to file 990 forms the way other nonprofits do? – were hard to come by.

Guidestar was a helpful source, but we all initially had trouble believing that churches didn’t have to file any financial disclosures with the IRS.

The turnaround time for any IRS response to a request for documents also appeared to be quite lengthy – up to two months.

I pored over the IRS’ tax guide for churches and read through the IRS’ FOI guidelines before filing three separate requests to three separate IRS addresses and fax numbers.

I had the best luck obtaining documents by filling out the IRS Form 4506-A, called the “Request for Public Inspection or Copy of Exempt or Political Organization IRS Form.” The turnaround time was also a lot faster than I’d anticipated – I got the documents in the mail in about a week and a half.

I came up empty on my request for the church’s 990 forms, and eventually learned tax-exempt churches aren’t required to file.

What we did get was Shoreline Church’s application to become a tax-exempt entity, which included information about the church’s organizational structure that helped us in our reporting even if the details didn’t end up making it in the story.

Q: What did you do to maintain balance in the story? How did you go about choosing what of his past to include and to omit?

Very early on, we had a “what if” scenario – what if Calo really did find God and turn his life around? We asked that question every day and used that to guide our reporting and, ultimately, the direction of the story. That meant that we didn’t wind up spending as much time in his past as we could have; there was a huge stack of information we didn’t have time to sort through and verify, mainly because it wasn’t going to make it into the story.

Therefore, we stuck with the two convictions: the larceny conviction and the cease-and-desist on the fraudulent newsletters. The other items in his past were matters of business deals gone bad and people feeling that Calo was scamming them – but none of which resulted in arrests or official police complaints (that we found).

The two convictions were also closest in time to his starting the church: he founded Shoreline Church just a year after the larceny conviction. Even though we didn’t have the space to write about the larceny in detail, we could see that it matched his pattern: every time he got in hot water somewhere, he moved on to something, or someplace, else.

We also focused on scrutinizing what, if anything, had happened in the time since he started the church. The two complaints, combined with police expressing their concern in reports (but unable to make an arrest) and a debt collection lawsuit, made it appear to us that the pattern could be continuing.

We also gave Calo ample opportunity to not only defend himself but to demonstrate how things have changed. He refused to disclose any information about finances and how the church is run and continued to lie to us. He left us with no way to disprove anything the complainants were saying about him, or to demonstrate that he had changed his ways.

Q: What are your tips for handling the uncooperative interview subject(s)?

If they are uncooperative as in combative (versus someone who’s afraid to talk) – stay calm, but do not allow them to take control of the interview.

We spent time coming up with and prioritizing our questions beforehand, at the office. We talked about the questions with each other and with the editors, and we also discussed approach. We were methodical about it, and that prep work helped us to maintain control when things got a little hairy during the interview. We weren’t winging it and therefore, we weren’t caught off guard.

Calo’s wife, Meredith, was extremely confrontational and accusatory throughout the interview. She accused us of not being right with the Lord, asked whether we attended church, asked us whether we’d want the most painful part of our past dredged up for the public to read about, etcetera. It would have been easy to take the bait and wind up in a back-and-forth with her that was completely off-topic. Instead, we let her talk, addressed her briefly and succinctly, and returned to the questions for Calo.

On the question about whether we attended church, for example, we answered that it was irrelevant. On the painful past, we told her that we would want the chance to tell our side and explain, and pointed out to her that it was of course relevant to ask a person in the position of power with a conviction for financial malfeasance to show us their books and get specific about how they handle finances now.

We knew our chances of getting through the entire interview were slim and we wanted to make sure to get the key questions in. Also, this was our interview, not hers. It wasn’t meant as a conversational back-and-forth like you might have in other interviews. We had very serious charges that we needed Calo to address and we needed to stay on track.

It was a time-management thing as much as a way to stay on topic.

Calo was completely cooperative in the beginning. He was really smooth and had obviously thought beforehand about how he was going to answer to the larceny and the newsletter. He acted like it was no big deal and tried to calm down his wife, who seemed surprised by the questions.

The moment we asked a question he was unprepared for, however, was when the interview fell apart. That’s when Calo became just as agitated as his wife. They were both raising their voices by then and threatened to sue us.

When they threatened to sue, we told them the interview was over. It’s standard practice here to let a person know that we can’t engage with them anymore if they plan to take us to court.

Q: Has there been any reaction since the story ran? From the church’s congregation or otherwise?

The story online saw a lot of comments, but we’ve had little in terms of e-mails or other contact, which surprised us. We thought folks would either come out of the woodwork to tell us their own story or that members of the congregation would rush to Calo’s defense in the comments, letters to the editor, etc. That was most surprising to us: that the congregation didn’t mount a public outcry.

A week after the story ran, Calo dedicated his entire sermon (he uploads his sermons as audio files to the church’s website) to reacting to our story. He spoke in loose terms about “the enemy” and how others were trying to portray the church members as fools but that only they (and God) knew the truth.