By Jesse Nankin
It started with an anonymous letter to the Eagle-Tribune, providing a tip on the questionable work habits of Philip F. Laverriere Sr., the long-time executive director of the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council. For more than a month reporter Keith Eddings, aided by the paper’s managing editor Gretchen Putnam and staff photographer Paul Bilodeau, observed Laverriere as he spent most workday afternoons at the local chapter of the Elks Lodge.
Surveillance can be a significant investment of time. It requires establishing the routine of your subject over days, weeks, or even months—all while keeping a low profile—and the consideration of any number of obstacles, including trespassing.
Eddings, a veteran newspaper reporter, agreed to talk to Watchdog New England about how he used surveillance to help build the story on Laverriere.
What worked in your favor while you were observing Laverriere?
A couple of things that worked well for us here in terms of surveillance is Laverriere is elderly, and I don’t think very alert, so we were able to observe him pretty closely in the parking lot at the Elks Club.
We were able to observe him from across the street as he pulled up and pulled in. We also had a couple of people doing the surveillance- a photographer [Paul Bilodeau], myself, and an editor [Gretchen Putnam]. So it was never the same car in the same place. All of us parked in our own place to watch Laverriere in various locations.
It also helps if your subject can’t recognize you.
I had covered him with one interview before—one face-to-face and one by phone, but I don’t think he would have been able to recognize me.
The rest of it is common sense…
You don’t pull up right behind Laverriere when you are following him from work to the Elk’s Club. You stay a comfortable distance behind. You want to be careful with the issue of trespassing.
In what way did concerns of trespassing affect your surveillance?
The Elks Club is a private organization as is the organization he was working at so we needed to be careful. To bring a charge for trespassing, you have to do one of two things, you have to either have warned the person to stay off the property or have the property posted. And that wasn’t the case here. No property was posted and we weren’t warned. But we didn’t want it to come to that so we decided to stay low and we were careful. We discussed the issue of trespassing beforehand. We were conservative in our surveillance techniques to make sure the issue wouldn’t come up.
A key ingredient to effective surveillance is an editor who is willing to commit to the story.
The most important thing that a reporter who wants to do investigative work can have are editors who believe in your story and understand what is involved and are willing to commit to it. My editors knew I was going to be out of the office and not doing a lot of daily stuff that is part of my regular beat. We don’t have an I-team here, we have reporters who do investigative work when they can or when it arises. My editors up and down—all the way to the top—are committed to this stuff.
It was a lot of time. We had to watch Laverriere go to work in the morning. We had to get the pattern established—that took a lot of time. Once the pattern was established we didn’t have to invest the time, we just had to be in key locations at key times. Make sure he gets to the Elks Club on time. Go back to when we know he’s going to leave and make sure he goes home and doesn’t go back to work. Watch him get in to work in the morning and then leave. Once we established that pattern it was just driving over and watching him carry out his routine.
But establishing the routine took a little bit of time –sometimes a couple of hours. We didn’t know what time he was going to get to the Elk’s Club or what time he was going to get to work. We needed to invest the time. Thankfully my editors allowed me to invest that time and understood I wouldn’t be doing the daily copy that normally I would be doing. And even jumped in on the story and helped me with the surveillance when it was needed.
Did you go every day to observe Laverriere?
We watched him for 24 days over the period of about six weeks, and on 21 of those days he was spending afternoons at the Elks Club, leaving as early as noon and staying at the Elks Club for as long as five hours. Some days we just left him there at 5. If he’s there past 5 there’s no point in us staying there and watching him. The workday is over–what he does after that is his business.
Did you use still photography or video for the surveillance?
We had a photographer [Bilodeau] do the surveillance for one day and so he got the still photos for the daily.
Surveillance isn’t as glamorous as it seems on TV…
It’s tedious work. It can be very boring. All the time you’re doing it, you’re thinking I am letting this other story go. But you have to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. You have to be able to see that this is an important story and it’s going to lead somewhere–it’s just not going to lead somewhere tomorrow. It’s going to take six weeks.
You have to be fair to the guy. You got to establish a pattern. You can’t just say, well, a couple of days a week we saw him at a bar. We had Laverriere at the Elks Club virtually every day.
And a story isn’t built simply on surveillance…
I will make another point about surveillance. This is more than just pulling up in a car with a cup of coffee and a newspaper and waiting for Laverriere to walk in and out of the building. There’s a lot of paper, for example, that has to be gathered as well. We got minutes of board meetings, we got an audit of this organization [Greater Lawrence Community Action Council], we got its form 990 tax forms. There’s a lot of paper we collected that was sort of groundwork—foundation documents—to support this story and to understand this organization.
The Greater Lawrence Community Action Council is an anti-poverty charity, which operates on $30 million a year and $29 million of that comes from the federal and state government. And that was a big part of our story—that this is taxpayer money Laverriere was blowing.
Using surveillance to help shape the story
There were pieces of this story that we wanted that we helped unfold as we were reporting it. By that I mean this: I suspected very strongly that the people at the organization who worked with Laverriere—his secretaries and his deputies—knew this was going on. As we were watching him walk into the Elks Club everyday at noon, we would call the agency on occasional days and say, ‘Is Mr. Laverriere in, please?” And we always got, he had a doctor’s appointment or he’s at a meeting or he suddenly had to go home sick. We were basically putting his secretaries and more importantly the deputy executive director on the record as part of this cover up—as the enablers for this kind of activity.
So that’s what I mean by steering the story. We knew how to bring in other people as enablers as we reported the story.
One of the last things we did was when we asked for the final interview with Laverriere, we asked for it when we knew he would be at the Elks Club—the so-called confrontation interview when we would present him the information we had. I didn’t ask for it in the morning because I knew he would be at work. I asked for the interview at 2 o’clock in the afternoon because I knew he was not going to let an interview with his local paper get in the way of video poker at the Elk’s Club.
And that’s actually what happened. We walked into the interview and the deputy executive director was there—the person immediately beneath him—and I said, ‘Where’s Phil?’ And he said, ‘Oh, he had to go home sick. Something came up.’
That was the last piece of the cover-up puzzle that fell into place here. So I said, ‘Well, we still would like to talk to Phil. Can I see him tomorrow morning?’ And I showed up at 10 o’clock and there he was, ready to talk.
How did you handle the confrontation interview?
One of the last discussions we had at the paper was – do we need to do a Mike Wallace style interview with Laverriere? Just sort of jump him in an embarrassing location and make him sweat with a camera crew in front of him.
That’s actually what I argued for –that for the final interview we should get him as he’s walking into the Elks Club and say, ‘Hey what are you doing here. We know you’ve been coming here for a month and that you’re making $150,000 and that no one is steering your $30-million dollar ship and it’s all funded by government money.’
But the editor at the paper [Al White], was a little more conservative and said, ‘I want a substantive interview from Laverriere. I don’t want a panicked interview where he’s going to turn around and run into the building and we don’t get the questions answered that we need answered. So, no, the final interview, the confrontation interview won’t be an ambush, it will be in his office.’
And it actually was a better way to do it. For one, we did get a very good interview out of Laverriere. It’s a treasure to watch. It was a good interview. He basically just sort of collapsed and ‘fessed up and it was a grand slam for us. We did have the goods on him.
I think it was the better way to go in terms of how you end your surveillance. Do you do it ambush or do you get the guy in a more reasoned location?
We went for substance over sensation, and I think we got substantive journalism because of it.
Keith Eddings has been a reporter for The Eagle-Tribune since last September. Prior to that, Eddings worked for 17 years at the Journal News, which covers New York’s Lower Hudson Valley. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.