Was a Vanity Fair Editor Secretly Working for the Church of Scientology?

The Observer, New York/March 1, 2011

Gawker.com, where the author is employed as a staff writer, declined to publish this story.

Did the Church of Scientology use a Vanity Fair contributing editor to infiltrate and gather intelligence on the cult's enemies in the media?

John Connolly is a well-known, and well-liked, character in New York media circles. He's a former NYPD detective and stock broker who landed a third career as an investigative reporter for Vanity Fair, where he is a contributing editor, Radar, the Daily Beast, Gawker, and other outlets. Connolly is an investigator of the old school, employed more for his ability to run a license plate number than his facility with prose. In 1990, while freelancing for Forbes, he was accused by a federal judge of using his old NYPD badge to obtain sealed court documents. According to USA Today, his stint as a stockbroker ended in the 1980s with a $100,000 civil penalty and lifetime ban from the Securities and Exchange Commission. He's a mischievous tipster, an inveterate gossip, and an information broker of the highest order. He speaks with a cartoonish New York accent and knows literally everybody. And according to the two highest ranking Scientology officials to ever leave the church, he's been a paid informant for the cult for two decades.

The accusation comes from Marty Rathbun, who ranked so high in the organization before he left that he served as Tom Cruise's "auditor," or confessor, and Mike Rinder, Scientology's former chief spokesman. Both men have defected from the church and accuse its current leader, David Miscavige, of ruling through violence and terror. On February 15, Rathbun posted to his blog a lengthy internal church memo, purportedly written by Linda Hamel, chief of the church's faux-CIA "Office of Special Affairs," revealing Connolly to have secretly supplied intelligence to the church on the preparation of Andrew Morton's 2008 biography of Tom Cruise. According to the memo, Connolly approached Morton in 2006 under the pretense of writing "an article for Vanity Fair about the books Morton has done on celebrities including the one he is writing on Tom Cruise." He proceeded, the memo says, to pump Morton for information about his book and report it back to the church:

Connolly was here in LA working on the Pellicano story ["Talk of the Town," Vanity Fair, June 2006] and contacted Morton and met with him on the basis of gaining his cooperation to be interviewed for an article for Vanity Fair about the books Morton has done on celebrities including the one he is writing on Tom Cruise. Connolly wanted to see what Morton was like and get any information about where Morton is currently at with regard to writing the book and to see if Morton would agree to be interviewed for an article. Based on the meeting, Connolly said that Morton seems to have finished his research already and is busy writing the book.

Connolly told Morton that it would not be a puff piece and would show both sides including what would be said about Morton. (Connolly will use the article to investigate Morton's past treatment of other celebrities, use of sleazy sources, etc. that would undermine Morton's credibility). Morton said he would check with St. Martin's Press to get their take on cooperating for the story. Morton seems to be interested in generating publicity for the book.

Connolly's impression of Morton is that he is a serious writer and is a focused person but enjoyable to talk to. He knows how to use his charm to get people to talk. Morton also told him that it only took him five weeks to write the Monica Lewinsky book - so he is capable of churning out a lot in a short period of time.

Morton said that he thought that Tom Cruise was a good story and that is why he wanted to write the book. The reporter got the impression from talking with Morton that Morton has collected a lot of information about the Church and that this will be well covered in the book. Morton also mentioned that he has an assistant who is working for him.

Connolly's impression is that Morton is a formidable adversary who is not going to back down. He thinks that Morton has made up his mind already as to the angle of the book but did not specifically say what it was.

In the US Connolly, wants to do an investigative story and put a piece together on Morton and his use of sleazy sources in the books he has done about celebrities such as Madonna, the Beckhams and Tom Cruise. This would attack Morton on his reputation questioning the credibility of his sources.

The memo proves, in Rathbun's words, that "Connolly has been a Church of Scientology Office of Special Affairs informant for nearly two decades." In a phone interview, Rathbun told me that Connolly's work for the church was extensive. He was an operative, Rathbun says, of a Los Angeles cop-turned-private-investigator named Gene Ingram who was well known as a hired spook for Scientology. "I hired Ingram," says Rathbun. "And I remember distinctly that he would talk about his pal John Connolly. For years I periodically saw his name in programs and reports as an active source of information and stories." Rathbun cited examples: Connolly was involved, he says, in gathering intelligence on a 1993 Premiere story on Tom Cruise that the church was particularly concerned about. The details are hazy, Rathbun says, "but I remember Connolly getting intel on that story." Rathbun also says Connolly was involved in "trying to influence" vocal ex-Scientologist Chuck Beatty in 2006.

Rinder, who was responsible for, in church parlance, "handling" the news media, corroborates Rathbun's account. "Connolly was a resource to deal with media problems," he told me. "Ingram used to tout Connolly's virtues pretty often--'Connolly can handle this; he'll find out what's going on and he's got lines into all media.' That was something I heard many, many times. Ingram even met with Connolly at the Celebrity Center in Los Angeles." Like Rathbun, Rinder recalled vaguely that Connolly was involved in reconnoitering the Premiere story. He also said Connolly "was used to gather information" on Wensley Clarkson, a British reporter who wrote an unauthorized biography of Tom Cruise in 1998.

Both Rinder and Rathbun say Connolly was paid for his services. "Absolutely," said Rinder. "No one ever does work like that for free. Not for the church." Likewise, Rathbun said, "I assume he was paid. That's the way Ingram operated." Neither man claimed to have direct knowledge of payments. Ingram didn't respond to repeated phone calls. Neither did the church.

Seeing Rathbun's post, and the purported memo, came as a shock to me. I know John Connolly. He wrote an item for Gawker just a few weeks ago. We worked together for months at Radar, where I was a senior reporter and he was on contract as a tipster, fixer, and all around über-source. We worked closely together on a feature story about the Los Angeles paparazzi. And he'd helped me out on a lengthy 2008 feature about Anonymous' war on Scientology. Connolly had received an inquiry from a member of Anonymous, which he handed off to me, and gave me the names and numbers of two helpful former Scientologists.

While I was working on that story, Connolly told me casually that he was friendly with some private investigators who work for the church. There was nothing particularly nefarious about that--Connolly's friendships with various private eyes is one of the reasons he's useful to places like Radar and Vanity Fair. The fact that some of them counted the church as clients, and that he freely admitted that, struck me as innocuous enough. And when he told me that one of those friends actually called him to ask who I was and what I was reporting on, I was more happy to know that my reporting had struck a nerve than worried about what Connolly might tell him. I trusted him.

Then a strange thing happened. Connolly called me up, out of the blue, and asked, "You live in Brooklyn, right?" Yes, I replied. "What neighborhood? I was just there visiting family, and it's so great." I told him that I lived in Park Slope, which isn't strictly true: I live in Windsor Terrace, an adjacent neighborhood. It's often easier to say Park Slope, which people know. But I was also immediately suspicious of why Connolly would want to know, so I decided to shade my answer a little bit in case he was helping a Scientology operative figure out which of the 62 public listings for a "John Cook" in Brooklyn was mine. I never suffered any Scientology harassment at my home, and I never confronted Connolly about why he needed to know where I lived. We continued to stay in touch, and he would occasionally tip me to stories.

When I read Rathbun's accusations, that call suddenly loomed large in my mind.

I called Connolly. He told me that he wasn't feeling well, and that he'd been "shot up with so many drugs" after a recent surgical procedure to correct a heart arrhythmia. He'd already seen Rathbun's post. "I've gotta tell you, it's bullshit," he said. How would the church know about his meetings with Morton? "Maybe they were tapping my phones," he said. "Maybe it's a forgery." Connolly admitted that he knew Ingram, but said the information flowed the other way in their relationship: "Ingram drank too much one night and told me what they were doing to Rich Behar," he told me. "I'm the one who called Behar and told him what the church was up to." Behar was a reporter for Time who wrote a detailed expose on the church in 1991 and was rewarded with a $416 million lawsuit and exhaustive investigation into his personal life by the church that included obtaining his phone records and credit reports. (Behar corroborated Connolly's account, telling me that Connolly contacted Time's legal department in the early 1990s with a tip "that an agent for the church had told John over drinks that he [the agent] was proud of a particular thing he had done to gather information about a family member of mine," and that Behar was "highly appreciative of what he did in this effort to help us.")

Connolly did approach Morton in 2006, as the Hamel memo states. Patricia Greenway was Morton's assistant on the Cruise book. She told me that Connolly introduced himself as a writer for Vanity Fair who was working on a book about Anthony Pellicano, and was interested in trying to connect Pellicano to Scientology. "He was asking me to tell him what I knew about Scientology," Greenway says. "He was pumping me for information. I spoke to him because Andrew asked me to." Contrary to the memo, however, Greenway says Connolly never told her that he was working on a story about Morton--just that he was a Vanity Fair writer working on a Pellicano book.

As far as I can tell, Connolly has never written a word about Scientology. Vanity Fair has never devoted a feature to the cult, though it has turned up tangentially in several stories. Beth Kseniak, a spokeswoman for the magazine, says Connolly has never been assigned to write about Scientology aside from contributing reporting to a 2008 Nancy Jo Sales story about two people who believed, falsely, that they were being harassed by the church. Radar and Spy, two other publications he's been associated with, covered it extensively, but never under Connolly's byline. He has claimed in the past that he's helped out behind the scenes on coverage of the church. When Andrew Morton e-mailed him to ask for an explanation of the Hamel memo, Connolly replied, among other things, that "I have worked on a number of anti-Scientology stories without getting a byline-my choice." One of those "anti-Scientology" stories is my 2008 Radar piece. I've been told by two former Scientologists that Connolly has claimed credit for some or all of that story, despite the fact that his participation consisted simply of referring me to three sources. In 2005, Radar published a damning story about Tom Cruise's relationship to the church; its author Kim Master says Connolly didn't play a role in it.

Which makes it odd that Connolly has repeatedly, almost obsessively, called a variety of prominent ex-Scientologists for years to keep up with them, all under the pretense of developing stories for Vanity Fair. "He called me hundreds of times," says Chuck Beatty, a former Scientologist who frequently helps reporters covering the cult. "He'd say, 'If there's any new defectors, let me know.' He asked me lots about Cruise. He asked me lots and lots about Paul Haggis." Haggis and his angry departure from the church were the subjects of a recent devastating story by the New Yorker's Lawrence Wright. "He was real heavy to find out who Blown for Good was." Blown for Good was the screen name of an anonymous former highly placed Scientologist who was active in a number of anti-Scientology message boards. He was later revealed to be Marc Headley, a church volunteer who spent 15 years on its Southern California desert compound. "He was repeatedly asking who Blown for Good was," Beatty says.

Connolly also maintained extremely close contact with vocal defector named Larry Brennan. "He's probably called me over 50 or more times," Brennan told me. "Sometimes twice or more a week. He was definitely checking up on me. We'd talk about our daughters. Sometimes I'd wonder--you're calling me once or twice a week, week in and week out, but never writing a story? He told me he was trying to find an angle."

Another high-profile Scientology dissident Connolly kept in touch with is Jason Beghe, a film and television actor who publicized his defection from the church in a series of YouTube videos calling it "very dangerous for your spiritual health." Connolly began calling after his break in 2008, Beghe says, and kept coming back. "I've been talking to him for a couple years at least," Beghe says. "He was always just interested in what was going on, or he just wanted to shoot the shit. He would try to blow smoke up my ass--'I like the cut of your jib, Jason.'" Beghe says he always suspected that Connolly wasn't keeping in touch for journalistic purposes. "I was waiting for the church to try something on me," he says. "And when Connolly first came on my radar, I was suspicious. So I'd always give him foggy data, because I believed I was talking to the church. And then a couple years ago, Marty told me, 'Yeah, I think that guy did undercover work for the church.'"

Connolly's contacts with these anti-Scientology figures certainly don't prove anything. In fact, they're exactly what you'd expect from a reporter covering the church. Trouble is, there doesn't seem to be any evidence that Connolly actually ever covered the church. And there is evidence, in the form of Rathbun's memo, that he worked for it. "He would definitely ask me about the kind of stuff that a Scientology spy would ask you about," says Brennan. "But it's also the stuff a reporter and friend would ask you about."

It was a recent call from Connolly to Beghe that sparked Rathbun to publish the memo. Wright's New Yorker story had just come out, and Connolly called Beghe to pump him for information about it. And he started in on a line of questioning accusing Rathbun and Rinder of plotting to take over Scientology. "He said, 'Marty and Mike, they're trying to take over the church,'" Beghe told me. "Connolly was trying to plant internecine turmoil between people the church regards as enemies." If anti-Scientologist activists came to believe that Rinder and Rathbun wanted to depose Miscavige and take over leadership of the church rather than destroy it, a schism could be exploited. Beghe called Rathbun to tell him about the conversation, and Rathbun decided to expose Connolly. "He was not only a data collector," Rathbun says. "He was an agent provocateur, and he was running an operation on Jason."

Connolly freely admits that he accused Rathbun and Rinder of trying to take over the church. When I first called him to ask about the memo, he said, "They got spooked because I was asking about the schism. You and I should do a story on it together." He explained to Morton that "I have been poking around and trying to get a publication to do a story about the possible takeover/schism of Scientology which apparently has made some people nervous."

IF CONNOLLY WERE a paid agent of the church used to run interference on stories the church was worried about, one would expect to see his fingerprints on Wright's New Yorker piece, which was highly anticipated. He never contacted Wright or tried to gather intel on the story, but Wright says Connolly's name came up during his reporting. "I was alert to surveillance and that sort of thing," Wright said. "I didn't feel like it was happening. But I did hear the name. It was during one of many 'they're gonna get you' conversations I had with various ex-church people. The conversation had to do with, 'There will be an article about you, they'll try to smear you. And John Connolly's name came up. In the welter of names that had been thrown at me, his was one."

Rolling Stone contributing editor Janet Reitman spent the last five years working on her book Inside Scientology, which will be released later this year. It's based on a critical 2006 Rolling Stone article, and would likewise be a prime target for someone operating as a media informant. Reitman told me she's never met Connolly and that he never attempted to contact her. But she was surprised when Brennan, one of her sources for the book, called her a year or so ago to tell her that Connolly had been talking about her. "He certainly knew a lot about me and about my book, when it was coming out," she said. "And he told Brennan how much he liked my writing."

I could find no evidence that Connolly was involved in any of the specific operations that Rinder and Rathbun mentioned to me. Beatty said he spoke to Connolly all the time, but couldn't recall any specific instances of Connolly trying to influence him, as Rathbun claimed. John Richardson, the author of the 1993 Premiere story that Rinder and Rathbun recall Connolly gathering intelligence on, says Connolly never contacted him during his reporting. "We certainly did have a lot of trouble with the church during that story," he said. "I went to interview Rathbun and Rinder [who were at that time still in the church] with an editor of mine. They'd only known for two days that he'd be joining me, and in that time they learned that he was gay and had worked for Rolling Stone as an assistant, neither of which were public. So they definitely had someone working on us. Someone inside the media must have done it."

Richardson did have a run-in with Connolly not long after, though. He had been working on a subsequent story on Heidi Fleiss, the Hollywood Madam, that was killed for a variety of reasons. Richardson says that a year later, Connolly, writing either for Spy or New York, began reporting a story based on the premise that Richardson dropped the Fleiss story in exchange for a bribe. "We had to send a cease and desist order, and he stopped," Richardson says. "I don't know if that was a Scientology revenge plot or just an honest mistake."

Wensley Clarkson, the author of the unauthorized Cruise biography that Rinder says Connolly gathered information on, says he's never met him and is unfamiliar with the name.

When I called various former colleagues of Connolly's to run Rathbun's accusations by them, few were truly surprised. But rather than condemn him as a Scientology rat, they shrugged and said: "He's playing both sides. That's Connolly." Indeed, for someone who trades in gossip and information, being regarded by the church as an asset could be exceedingly useful. Who knows what valuable secrets Connolly could extract from Ingram, or other church members, in exchange for using his credentials to keep tabs on a few harmless critics of the church, or check up on a reporter now and again? Reporters trade information with sources all the time. Moreover, if Rathbun's accusations are true and his memo genuine, who's to say Connolly passed on accurate information? If he was meeting with Ingram at the church's Celebrity Center in Los Angeles--an invitation I wouldn't turn down--the potential upsides in terms of inside information about Hollywood could be huge. The downside, of course, would be lying to and spying on your colleagues and sources.

I spoke to Connolly briefly on the phone after I first read Rathbun's memo. After speaking to Rathbun, Rinder, and others mentioned in this post, I repeatedly tried to reach him again to seek further explanation and clarification. He declined to return my phone calls or e-mails. My inquiry to Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter was forwarded to spokeswoman Beth Kseniak, who told me that the memo's claim that Connolly used his Vanity Fair credentials to get close to Morton is false. "As far as we're concerned, the claim that he approached Andrew Morton as a Vanity Fair reporter is unfounded." When I asked her for Carter's response to the claim that Connolly had been feeding intel to the church for 20 years, she said, "You're going to have to go to Connolly on that."

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