Defectors tell of "psycho sessions" and relentless demand for cash inside the Citizens Electoral Council. A political group accused of dirty tricks and the brainwashing of recruits faces increasing hostility. Martin Daly reports.
A Melbourne woman has appealed to the American consulate to prevent her 16-year-old son from being taken to the United States for training with an extremist right-wing political cult, run by a convicted criminal, Lyndon LaRouche.
Ms. Narelle Stratford, of Rosanna, contacted the consulate after Mr. LaRouche's Australian branch, the Coburg-based Citizens Electoral Council, refused her plea not to take her son overseas.
Critics have accused the LaRouche movement of brainwashing followers in Australia, persuading donors to contribute money on the basis that the financial world is about to end, and running "dirty tricks" campaigns against its enemies, notably leading Australian Jews.
The CEC was formed in 1988 in Kingaroy, Queensland, in response to the rural crisis when many farmers were in danger of losing their farms. It became a successful grass-roots political organization with about 100 branches around the country, mostly in rural areas, but within a few years it was taken over by American LaRouchians and their Australian followers.
Since then, the CEC has been criticized for allegedly abusing its position as a political party and for discarding members and donors once they have contributed funds to the organization.
The CEC denies the allegations and blames former members for spreading "lies" in an attempt to destroy the CEC and Lyndon LaRouche in Australia.
But Ms. Stratford, one of a number of Australians to split from the CEC, said she was alarmed by the allegations. She also feared her son would be put through a LaRouchian "Cadre School" in the US, which she described as a brainwashing session to bind followers to the organization.
Ms. Stratford said the US consulate in Melbourne told her it could not stop her son, who has a visa, from going to the US. The CEC said Ms Stratford's son, a CEC employee, was capable of making the decision for himself and that he wanted to go to the US.
"I know of no other employer that would pull this sort of stunt without asking the parent first," Ms Stratford said.
"And if the parents said they did not want that to happen, it would not happen."
Former CEC members said the organization, often under the direction of a LaRouchian, Mr. Allen Douglas, from Leesburg, Virginia, held frequent cult-like "psycho sessions," during which members were abused and told they must accept their crimes - including masturbation, sodomy and homosexuality - if they were to be cured.
Motherhood and the influence of women over offspring was often derided. Women were frequently referred to as "witches."
One founding CEC member, Mr. John Koheler, of Kingaroy - who resigned after the LaRouchians "hijacked" the organization - said the CEC responded to his opposition to the Americans by telling him he was "blocked" and "paranoid."
"I told Al Douglas that he was a fascist bastard and then they said I was doubly paranoid," Mr. Koheler said.
Mrs. Rhonda Rotaru, of Colac, wife of Mr. Alex Rotaru, who said he was an "intelligence" officer for the CEC, also went through a "psycho session" because she refused to move to Melbourne with her husband. Mrs. Rotaru said she was criticized for breastfeeding her son at two years of age. "I always thought breastfeeding was just a natural part of womanhood," she said. "They said it was bad for a young child to be so dependent on its mother and that I would ruin his life. They made me feel as if I was the worst person in the world."
Mrs. Rotaru said the CEC tried to break her marriage. Her husband said he was called an "animal" during a "psycho session" and was asked if would leave his wife and children to live nearer the CEC in Melbourne.
"They inquired into my relationship with my mother," he said. "That was pretty much standard procedure. It was an interrogation. The whole aim was to create a new person, making your past totally irrelevant and giving you a new personality. "No matter what you said, it was your mother's fault. It was pretty hideous stuff. Many people broke down and cried."
Mr. Rotaru said the CEC gave him the cold shoulder because he refused to give them part of his $100,000 superannuation payout from Telstra. Then, he said, they asked him to mortgage his Melbourne house to finance a trip to Australia by a senior LaRouchian, Mr. James Bevel, a former confidant of the late Martin Luther King. His wife refused to allow it.
A former Queensland sheep farmer, Ms. Julie Warner, accused the CEC of contributing to the breakup of her marriage, which led to the loss of her three sons in a separation case. She said she was virtually forced to remain in the US, fund-raising on the telephone for the organization, while the LaRouchians worked on her to wipe out her "mother complex" mindset.
"They would tell you there was something wrong with your mind, if you are not pulling huge dollars in," said Ms. Warner, who blamed CEC "brainwashing" for bringing her close to suicide.
Ms. Warner said she worked in the ``boiler room" - a fund- raising room with a bank of telephones - in Melbourne where she persuaded donors she knew to give the CEC about $60,000.
"I believed that we were out there to help people who had got into trouble in primary industry and here they were taking all their money and leaving them," Ms. Warner said.
She said the CEC encouraged her to leave her family: "They wanted to know how much money I would be getting from the property if the marriage broke up."
A farmer, Mr. Joe Vella, of Kingaroy, Queensland, said he sold almost $1 million in assets to clear debts and give his wife, a CEC member, her share of the family farm. He feared she may have given a lot of the money to the CEC.
Mr. Vella came into contact with the CEC after attending a meeting in Kingaroy. "We are in financial trouble. They made us think they were going to save us and get the interest rates dropped...," he said.
He said the CEC's Mr. Michael Sharp, alias Michael Stark, stayed at the Vella home for seven nights. "All we ever did was give him money. It was about three years ago. He used to say, 'We can't pay this bill.' We probably gave him $2,000 in cash. Never got a receipt." He recalled the CEC instructing people not to watch television "because the cartels would get us."
"They are a horrible bunch of people," added Mr. Vella, who flew to Melbourne three times to try and persuade his wife to return. "When I first flew to Melbourne, I could only talk to her sitting on the fence outside (the CEC office).
"Later she agreed to talk to him in a bar, but only in the company of another CEC member. "What really hurt me was that (the CEC member) said 'you and your children have a sickness of the mind which you have inherited from your father.' I got up and punched a brick wall and then went outside and sat in the gutter for a while."
Mr. Victor Barwick, one of three sons of Queensland farming couple Doreen and Billy Barwick to join the CEC, said he went through "psycho-sessions" in Melbourne and in the US. He said Al Douglas told him he was having a "psycho-sexual relationship with my mother. I was only 17 at the time", Mr. Barwick said.
Mr. Barwick said that on a trip to the US, Mr. LaRouche told him there "was a dark age coming, that learning would be done away with and that most people would be slaves." Mr. Barwick was paid $200 a week by the CEC for fundraising up to 12 hours a day, six days a week.
One of the primary aims of the CEC is to raise money. It has raised $900,000 for each of the past two years and is one of the largest political fundraisers in the country, although the CEC has been deregistered as a political party.
The relentless demand for cash from donors comes from "Upgrade Teams" that travel Australia to persuade donors to increase contributions. Fundraisers are often trained by American LaRouchians who travel here on tourist or business visas.
Mr. Victor Barwick said teams in the "boiler room" sell subscriptions to La Rouche and CEC publications for up to $600 a year.
"I think they rip people off," Mr. Koehler said. "It (the CEC) is immoral and corrupt...they frequently do not use the funds for the purpose they are raised for. It should not go into some kind of a slush fund. Obviously it does...a considerable amount does. The public needs to know that this operation is not in the interests of this country and they should not support it."
Donors have told The Age they were encouraged to go into debt without telling their spouses so they could give money to the CEC. One woman said her husband had given the CEC about $80,000. "They (the CEC) do use members like puppets. I am trying to get my husband out of it," she said.
Ms. Kerrie Watterson, from Cranbrook, north of Albany, Western Australia, said she was persuaded by a CEC member to get a Bankcard so she could quickly donate money to the CEC if they needed it for an emergency.
"Against my better judgment, I got a Bankcard," said Mrs. Watterson, who was then persuaded to use her maximum credit line to donate to the CEC. "Overall, they did me for about $1,600."