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

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.”