Charitable Front

Mysterious organizations in the Bay Area profess to be advocating for liberal causes. In truth, they appear to be part of a secretive group with a bizarre radical past.

San Francisco Weekly/December 9, 2009

As with any San Francisco dogfight, myriad organizations have piled on to the civic battle to pressure Sutter Health to rebuild St. Luke's Hospital at César Chávez and Valencia streets.

There's the California Nurses Association (CNA), the union pushing to compel Sutter Health to preserve St. Luke's organized labor jobs. There are neighborhood groups fighting to pressure Sutter Health to build its new hospital in a way that won't snarl traffic. And then there's the Physicians Organizing Committee, a self-described group of doctors and medical professionals that seems to be one of the more aggressive on the CNA side of the dispute, with representatives speaking to students at local universities, canvassing merchants, and proposing alliances with nonprofits such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

But somehow, the group has been an enigma to the controversy's main players.

"They've been able to bring physicians to hearings who can bring the authority that physicians have," CNA organizer Nato Green said, but "I don't know where they come from, or what their structure is."

Gillian Gillett is the spokeswoman for the San Jose/Guerrero Coalition to Save Our Streets, which has been lobbying Sutter Health to include a park, a senior center, and traffic calming measures as part of a rebuilt St. Luke's Hospital. Gillett said she doesn't know much about the Physicians Organizing Committee except that it seemed to be aligned with the position of the nurses' union: "There are so many people gaming this whole process that it's hard to know who's who," she says. "They say, 'We're doctors,' and describe the horrors of what's going on at St. Luke's. And people trust them because they're doctors."

Joseph Chan, an East Bay psychiatrist, has appeared at events as a professional spokesman for the group. But even he didn't seem to know much about how it was run, other than that its leaders had asked him to act as their representative.

"They arrange meetings and talks, where I go and talk with students and tell them what's happening," he said. "They are the people who organize things. They have connections with people who teach classes, so we can go and inform the students about the situation. The students are more energetic, and able to do things, because they involve the future."

When I called the committee's office number, representative Brian Tseng said his group had protocols for talking with the media, that he'd have to consult with his board of directors before describing his group's activities, and that he wasn't interested in helping with an article.

Why the seeming secrecy? Knowledgeable sources say that the Physicians Organizing Committee is one of several Bay Area front groups set up to disguise a strange political cult. Although a representative for the committee has denied the link, it has shared personnel with an alleged cult front group, and received a grant from the National Equal Justice Association (NEJA), a nonprofit shell corporation linked to the cult. (The committee's manager, meanwhile, has donated money to NEJA.) Committee representatives also deal with the press using a protocol consistent with rules laid down by the cult.

The cult, an umbrella organization based in New York, goes by names such as the Provisional Communist Party and the National Labor Federation, abbreviated as NatlFed. Historically, the stated goal of NatlFed is one that would likely even discomfit the Bay Area liberals the organization targets for recruiting: the violent overthrow of the U.S. government.

NatlFed doesn't fit most people's idea of a cult. There's no religious dogma. Instead, it's best known for preaching leftist revolution. Yet, during its 40 years of existence, it doesn't seem to have performed a single terrorist act. Decade after decade, its members have merely gone about preparing themselves for the possibility of an eventual day of insurrection - like Pentecostals awaiting the rapture.

In the meantime, the group has undertaken charitable works that Palo Alto's Jeff Whitnack, who volunteered for the group in the 1980s until he became disillusioned, refers to as "flypaper" designed to lure young idealists. They maintain what NatlFed insiders refer to as "entities" or "mutual-benefit associations" to do food drives, recruit doctors and attorneys to provide services for low-income people, and give lectures about the need for mental health services in the Mission.

For anyone living in the Bay Area, these apparent front groups are simultaneously invisible and ubiquitous. At a recent Thanksgiving dinner I attended at a San Francisco friend's house, five of the 10 adults present had volunteered for, donated to, or been contacted by NatlFed fronts.

These groups, which the FBI has linked to NatlFed, have names that make them sound like labor unions or professional associations, among them the Coalition of Concerned Medical Professionals, the Coalition of Concerned Legal Professionals, the California Homemakers Association, and the Western Farm Workers Association.

None of the groups enter into collective bargaining agreements or are registered with the IRS as nonprofits. They do not publicly disclose their finances. They don't form close public alliances with community groups that have similar aims. They do not publish their regular activities, have Web sites, or create any public documentation of how they function. They keep themselves all but invisible - except to those they choose to contact.

"People will become involved in NatlFed, or one of its front groups, and don't even realize the group has a political agenda," cult intervention specialist Rick Ross said. "They simply feel it's a group to help the poor, not understanding the overall thrust of the group."

Former members and volunteers of seemingly NatlFed-linked groups say there's something futile and ultimately embarrassing about having performed good works for an organization that turned out to view charity as a means to a secret end.

Erica Junghans, a Brazilian journalist who now lives in San Francisco, recalls volunteering for the Physicians Organizing Committee in 2004. She initially thought it was akin to the Union of Concerned Scientists, an organization dedicated to public awareness. Her impression changed after a trip with one of the group's self-described cadre - NatlFed jargon for group members who have given up outside pursuits to volunteer full-time for the cause - to Kaiser Permanente's Oakland Medical Center to recruit a doctor.

Though the group presented itself as a sort of union, the idea wasn't to get the doctor and his colleagues to negotiate better conditions. Instead, the cadre "said we're looking for a few key people that could bring more members, basically," recalled Junghans, who stopped volunteering after just a few outings. "I found it - I don't want to say weird - I found it odd."

Illinois attorney Robin Fahlberg was a NatlFed member for 15 years during the 1980s and '90s, and ran its Eastern Farm Workers Association front group in upper New York state. She came away thinking the organization's leaders were more interested in going through the motions of doing good works in order to attract volunteers than actually achieving success. She recalled one instance where she was poised to reach a settlement in a civil rights case. She considered a settlement offer a victory, but group leaders felt otherwise: "I got a call from the national headquarters saying, 'We're not going to take this settlement.' My jaw dropped."

Perhaps the most significant public accomplishment in NatlFed 's 40-year history came in October 2006, when the California Senate allocated $601,000 to settle Vega v. Mallory, a lawsuit backed by the Coalition of Concerned Legal Professionals and the Western Farm Workers Association. The suit, won on appeal, alleged that laborers were overcharged for housing in a program overseen by California's Office of Migrant Services.

"That was a good lawsuit, and the volunteer attorneys on it were great," said San Francisco lawyer Tony Palik, an attorney on the case.

In his experience, leaders of the Coalition of Concerned Legal Professionals seemed more concerned about getting him to attend Marxist indoctrination sessions and using his work on the farmworker litigation case to recruit new volunteers and members than about actually succeeding with the suit: "The organization itself was more of a hindrance than a help." Palik split with the group in 2002.

According to ex-members Whitnack and Fahlberg, professionals such as doctors and lawyers are to NatlFed what movie stars are to Scientology. They're recruited to lend authority to the group, but aren't necessarily informed of its core revolutionary mission, and are not required to endure the isolation and other privations of full-time members.

Notwithstanding, Palik learned enough during his seven years with the Coalition of Concerned Legal Professionals and the Western Farm Workers Association to look back at his experience with anger. "Their mission, or their objective, is so all encompassing for them, whatever that is," he said. "They were never very forthcoming about it. They were so dedicated to it in a bizarre, cultlike way, that everything, everything for them - it's all a means to an end. And the end is very murky, and weird, and kind of sinister, even."

The mastermind behind NatlFed's bizarre revolutionary philosophy was Gerald Doeden, a man known as a brilliant con man who recited Shakespeare at length and once dodged a bar tab by signing a check as Jesus H. Christ. The former Marysville disc jockey reinvented himself in the '70s as a revolutionary named Gino Perente, who claimed (falsely) to be a comrade of César Chávez and a veteran of worldwide insurrectional movements. He walked with a limp, which he told his followers was the result of a gunshot wound sustained while fighting in Latin American rebel movements (he actually limped because of a old car wreck injury).

In 1970, Perente established a base of operations at the Little Red Bookstore on Mission Street, from which he issued a declaration of war against Northern California. The following year, as part of the armed rebellion, 30 armed individuals were supposed to kidnap city officials in Berkeley and blow up the Bank of America building in San Francisco, according to his FBI file. A San Francisco Examiner article at the time said law enforcement officials considered him harmless and saw his dozen or so followers as kooks.

Perente later moved to New York City and founded another group with a more benign-seeming purpose named the Long Island Farm Workers Association; it was later renamed the Eastern Farm Workers Association. This group eventually evolved into NatlFed and the Provisional Communist Party.

For years, Perente told his Provisional Communist Party members that they were an elite vanguard who would lead a second American revolution. During the early 1980s, he began setting a specific date for armed takeover of the U.S. government, and the FBI infiltrated the group.

An FBI agent put it this way in a report from the time: "This takeover ... is referred to by members as the 'Proscenium Tactic.' The party is divided into several cells, which they call 'fractions,' with one of these fractions being called the 'Military Fraction' (MF). The MF requires a minimum one-year full-time membership, complete with political education, training, and evaluation. Several sources have reported that the MF participates in military drills. It was also reported by sources that weapons were stored at 1107 Carroll Street, Brooklyn, New York."

Although Perente's planned coups never materialized, followers ate up his speeches about revolution, even during his deteriorated, drug-addicted later years.

"He would be sitting, smoking Lucky Strikes, leg withered, in a wheelchair, very skinny and decrepit," said Irene Davidson, who volunteered with the group in the mid-1990s to extricate a daughter who had joined. "He would dress in white suits and cowboy hats to give his talks, but his suits were really filthy. He had no teeth. He didn't make sense. But the group treated him like God."

One woman, who was recruited to the group at age 16 in the 1970s and stayed until 1996, recalls the euphoria associated with believing Perente's rantings to be true.

"There were classes in Marxist-Leninist theory," the former Perente assistant said. "They were called 'arenas' because these were battlegrounds ... because it was supposed to be an armed revolution at some point. The theory being, sooner or later, you're going to have to take up a gun and shoot somebody. I remember having conversations with people saying, 'Okay, you can be in charge of this town, and you can be in charge of the state of New York.'"

A 1984 raid by the FBI produced crates of paperwork - much of which consisted of records documenting the monitoring of recruits - but no proof NatlFed was a legitimate threat.

In 1996, after Perente died, the New York Police Department raided the group's headquarters, prompted by neighbors who thought they had heard children's cries. Police seized a cache of dusty firearms and more boxes of records. Mayor Rudy Giuliani held a press conference exposing what he characterized as a nefarious cult - hoopla that ended with a whimper as the Village Voice, The New York Times, Newsday, and other papers reported that NatlFed seemed to have never actually done anything. Instead, its members had spent a quarter century aggressively recruiting volunteers, some of whom would abandon society so they, too, could recruit more volunteers.

According to news accounts from the time of the 1996 raid, Margaret Ribar - the head of NatlFed's West Coast operations - succeeded Perente as the group's leader. Given the organization's secrecy, obtaining information about how things are currently run at NatlFed is difficult.

Nate Lescovic, now editor of Performer magazine in Boston, infiltrated the NatlFed-linked Eastern Service Workers' Association in 2004 as an independent journalist. "That was the only way I saw getting any information about them," he said. "I went in as a volunteer, and did a couple of events with them, and went door to door with them, and tried to get a sense of how they ran things."

He came away with an impression of an organization obsessed with its own version of Communist doctrine. Despite some accounts that that the group had mellowed under Ribar's leadership - a 1996 Village Voice story said "she loosened some of the restrictions that prevent members from visiting their families" - Lescovic was troubled by the sheltered lives of the group's young volunteers. "These kids had given up all their family and friends. They were living in poverty, working and living at the office, and doing nothing else, and living off food donations. They always had the same clothes on," he recalled. "It's this kind of taking lives away from people. You could argue that, 'Well, that's their decision. They can do what they want with their lives.' But being around these kids, it seemed like there was more to it than that. It seemed like it was not their decision. They were never happy, at all. There was not much laughter, never any smiles, and they were always running around doing work. None of them seemed to have anything to enjoy in their lives."

Ex-volunteers I spoke with who had been involved with NatlFed affiliates in the post-Perente years also indicate the group continues its cultlike behavior.

"Every two weeks they would sit me down and ask me to increase my commitment," said an ex-volunteer from Chicago, who worked for a front group in 2000. "But you can't ratchet up people's commitment too many times, or bad things start happening. You can't afford rent unless you're independently wealthy. They said, 'You can move in with us.' So I moved in with them. But moving in with them means you have no time off. They isolate them from the things you enjoyed, and things that are familiar, so you are easy to manipulate."

Thin, with a beard, ponytail, and elegant diction, this volunteer wanted to help the poor, "but the price they asked me personally was cutting me off from the rest of society, and disallowing the things that had become important to my identity."

Palik also witnessed what he believed was untoward treatment of volunteers. "They have this unbelievable file of every volunteer who's ever signed up with them going back 30 years," the attorney said. "At first, that seemed harmless. But I later found out it's a little bit sinister, because they seem to keep tabs on people."

One woman I spoke with said NatlFed ruined her relationship with her son, who has turned into a Marxism-spouting automaton whom she rarely sees anymore.

"It's going through hell, with lots of blaming myself," said the woman, who asked not to be identified. "There's lots of anger, with family members blaming each other. There's anger at him. And there's deep, deep sorrow and depression. I resonated with a woman who said, 'You just have to think of them as dead. To think of them as alive is just so painful.' When a person is dead, you know they're gone ... I cannot think of any other situation that is comparable."

Arthur Elcombe, an Anglican priest who retired with his wife to a Hayes Valley Victorian, presented two distinct faces to the world, both of them gentle, generous, and idealistic. But one of them had a sinister twist.

To most, Elcombe was a tireless community organizer who had founded charities and other public benefit groups. To the world inside NatlFed, he was much more than a mere community organizer. He was the sweet old reverend who had secretly devoted his life to the cause of violent revolution.

"I couldn't believe it," recalls a former core member who asked not to be named. "It was like he was so cute and adorable, and he would talk about overthrowing the government. He was part of the central committee."

According to ex-NatlFed members, Elcombe's San Francisco-based nonprofit, the National Equal Justice Association, has been key to the overall organization because it allowed the group to solicit tax-deductible donations which could later be routed to front groups.

Elcombe died in 2005. His obituary in the San Diego Union noted that "[i]n July 1985, the Rev. Elcombe organized the delivery of relief supplies to a west Philadelphia neighborhood ravaged by fire."

The deeper motive behind the interest in Philadelphia was not charity but opportunism, according to Fahlberg. The fire had been caused when police bombed the headquarters of a radical black power group called MOVE, provoking nationwide liberal outrage. This was a type of opportunity NatlFed was prepared for.

"They had people on the phone full-time from NatlFed headquarters in Brooklyn, making up stories," Davidson said. "They had people cold-calling, and they were notorious for that. If you ever gave a penny, they would never leave you alone."

Fahlberg said NatlFed's leaders saw the bombing as a golden chance to raise money for the cause. "I do know that in New York, they were raising money for our organization, based on the bombing of the MOVE group in Philadelphia," she said. "That money all went right to the national organization."

Fahlberg told me that after leaving NatlFed during the mid-1990s, she contacted law enforcement in Illinois to report her belief that the National Equal Justice Association existed to dupe donors, a practice that, in her mind, was laundering money for a cult.

In my own review of NEJA documents on file with the IRS and the California Registry of Charitable Trusts, I found no evidence that the organization was used to break any laws. However, I did find a very unusual nonprofit that had no discernible public presence; it does not seem to hold public events, and it has no Web site. Yet during the three years of reports to the IRS ending in 2008, the group has attracted more than $500,000 in donations, a pace consistent with previous years. Among those who have made contributions are major corporations: In 2000, when NEJA reported the names of donors on its IRS forms, it declared gifts of $22,500 from Novartis, $27,000 from SmithKline Beecham, and $15,000 from Lipton.

Historically, ex-members and volunteers say, the money has really been raised by a boiler room of NatlFed cold-callers in Brooklyn and through front groups. IRS documents indicate NEJA apparently then gave the money back to NatlFed fronts in the form of grants. Those former insiders say they understood NEJA's role as allowing donors to make tax-deductible gifts that might eventually end up at NatlFed headquarters in New York.

Fahlberg recalled that when she was operations manager of NatlFed's Eastern Farm Workers Association in New York state, she was instructed to ask donors to make checks out to the National Equal Justice Association.

Later, she received a grant check from NEJA, deposited it in the bank, and paid bills for an organizing drive. "Yes, it was money laundering, and that was how they did it," she said. "In my mind, they told supporters that this money they were raising was for a particular purpose, and then the money instead went to support the bills of the national office. They would write a check to one of these other organizations, such as the Eastern Farm Workers Association or the Finger Lakes Equal Justice Association, and then tell them to bring the money back into headquarters to make it look legit."

A former NatlFed assistant to Perente, who didn't want her name published because she doesn't want her former association with the group to become public, said she was also responsible for cashing NEJA checks as part of her work as operations manager of one of the West Coast front groups.

"For the people who were doing really big donations, they were afforded the opportunity to send it to NEJA so they could get the tax break, but then all the money goes to the entities," she said, using NatlFed's term for front groups. "The entities get the check, but they don't keep the money. You're supposed to cash the check, and you send another check to the national office. Or you get the cash, and it's carried to the national office. But you weren't allowed to spend that money, because it wasn't considered yours."

The Chicago ex-volunteer said that he, too, saw transactions involving NEJA that might have skirted the bounds of propriety.

"I've written letters to the IRS saying, by the way, they might be running a money-laundering scam," he said. "When I was a volunteer, they gave me instructions, when I was on the phone soliciting donations, to say, by the way, if someone wants to make a large donation, then you have to make it out to the National Equal Justice Association."

But Sheila Warren, a San Francisco attorney and Golden Gate University adjunct professor who specializes in nonprofit law, said that these transactions do not demonstrate that the organization was violating the law. It would be easy for NEJA to argue that its grants went toward charitable purposes, given that NatlFed's front groups do perform real, socially beneficial work.

"It's certainly unusual, but it's not implausible that they're actually conducting themselves in a manner that complies with the tax laws," she said.

Notwithstanding, it's unlikely that donors and others snared in NEJA's web realize they're involving themselves with an organization that has a stated purpose of overthrowing the U.S. government.

The Reverend Schuyler Rhodes, pastor of Temple United Methodist Church in the Sunset (where I happen to attend), has been on NEJA's board of advisers for five years, a fact I discovered while reporting this article. He was recruited by activist Gail Williamson, NEJA's secretary-treasurer, who subsequently called him every year or so to say, in very general terms, that the group was advancing the cause of equal justice.

Like most volunteers for organizations with apparent links to the National Labor Federation, Rhodes had no inkling of NatlFed's existence, let alone its secret revolutionary goal. "I thought it was a mom-and-pop outfit that did civil rights work," he said. "I certainly don't like being lied to."

When asked whether NEJA had ever donated to a group that was not a NatlFed front, Williamson said she was in a hurry and would call me back. She did not return a subsequent message in which I described the money-laundering allegations.

During Perente's lifetime, his true identity was treated by his organization as a state secret. Paul Rauber reported in a 1984 East Bay Express exposé of the group that Perente once responded to a journalist who revealed he was Gerald Doeden with a menacing, but ultimately baffling diatribe.

"But don't blame it on the cops," Perente told the journalist. "They do it for a living. I started this in '58 -'53, actually; I was born young. Name-calling doesn't do it. Some guy calls him pig, will call you CIA, and some poor bastard will get whacked for it. This is work, dammit."

The odd secrecy continues to this day. It's almost impossible to contact NatlFed. There's no listing of an official headquarters, and efforts to reach Perente's supposed successor, Ribar, were unsuccessful. I was unable to find a number for Ribar, and a known associate of hers - Phyllis Garrett, who was arrested during the 1996 raid in New York - simply told me, "I'm sorry, but there's nobody here who can help you."

Leaders of organizations that seem very much like NatlFed front groups, meanwhile, publicly deny their association with the larger group. However, they share similar protocols for dealing with the press - protocols established by NatlFed, according to investigations by the FBI and other news organizations.

Former volunteer Whitnack has a boilerplate document on handling the media from his days with the group. "It starts off with 'Of course we'll ...' and ends with the journalist having to submit something on letterhead," he said. "Looking back, the document seemed more for internal use - instilling among members that NatlFed is alpha dog over the press."

It may still be official policy, however. When I called two representatives for NatlFed-linked groups, each told me almost identical things - to put my request in writing on SF Weekly's letterhead. I never heard back from them after doing so.

After a month of research, I'm still left with the question: Who are these people? And what is it, really, that they do?

When Whitnack recently wrote on the Physicians Organizing Committee's Yelp page that the group was part of NatlFed, committee member Brian Tseng wrote him a private message via the page. "First of all, POC uses the same method of organizing, systemic organizing, but no, we're not part of the National Labor Federation," he wrote. "You may also note that there are a lot of people who have good things to say about those organizing drives, because they do great work, period."

"Systemic organizing" is NatlFed jargon for methods compiled by Perente during the 1970s in The Essential Organizer, a collection of stapled, photocopied pages ex-members say has been recited as if it were the group's bible.

Although the FBI's investigation did not name the Physicians Organizing Committee as a NatlFed spinoff, it certainly seems to have NatlFed links. Fahlberg says that during her time with the group, she saw documents referring to the committee as a NatlFed entity. A former Perente aide confirmed it was part of the Provisional Communist Party's medical fraction. The Physicians Organizing Committee received a $5,000 grant in 1999 from NEJA, NatlFed's apparent funding arm. In 2005, Geoff Wilson, who was identified as the Physicians Organizing Committee's manager in a Pacific Sun story six years ago, donated more than $20,000 worth of stock to NEJA. And Whitnack, who volunteered with the group in 1984, said he worked alongside Wilson in the Coalition of Concerned Medical Professionals, described in NatlFed's FBI file as a front group.

A few days after speaking with Tseng, I called the Physicians Organizing Committee a second time and left a message saying I wanted to discuss the group's links to NatlFed. Tseng didn't respond, so I visited him in the committee's small 18th-floor office on Sutter Street.

"So is it correct to say you refuse to state whether you are linked to the National Labor Federation?" I asked, after having the door closed in my face twice.

"Look, this is starting to constitute harassment," Tseng said. A young woman at his side added, "We only do interviews with people who submit a letter," and shut the door in my face again.

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