Eagle-Tribune reporter Keith Eddings talks about using surveillance for investigative reporting

Eagle-Tribune reporter Keith Eddings

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.

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.

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.

Globe Reporter Patricia Wen on FOIA’s, Interviews and Uncovering the Next Big Story

By Jesse Nankin-

The Boston Globe’s Patricia Wen recently completed a three-part series on the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program titled, “The Other Welfare,” bringing to light controversial aspects about this system that serves indigent, disabled children. Watchdog New England sat down with Wen to find out how this talented journalist uncovered and reported the story, the stumbling blocks she faced and just how she convinced SSI recipients to speak so openly on the record.

Wen has been a Globe reporter for nearly 25 years, covering a wide range of topics, including the Boston Public School system, health and science, and more recently children, family and social service issues. Wen served on the Globe’s Spotlight Team, the paper’s investigative unit, and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in feature writing. In 2004, she won a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism for distinguished coverage of children and family issues. Prior to joining the Globe, Wen reported for the Star-Ledger, in Newark, N.J., and the Stamford Advocate, in Connecticut.

Listen to the interview here.

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