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.”