By Jesse Nankin
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.