Two years ago, members of a fund-raising organization called Southeast Literature Sales befriended Helen B. Overington, a Baltimorean in her 80s who lived alone in an apartment across from the Johns Hopkins University athletic fields.
They would visit her often in the Broadview Apartments on West University Parkway to assure her that her concerns about political upheaval in Eastern Europe and other problems were worth caring about -- and worth lots of money in donations for solutions.
Soon, the sums the organization asked of her were astronomical. Within months, but with increasing anxiety, she says, she gave away $741,000 in cash and stocks to Southeast, virtually her entire inheritance.
Worried that she might not be able to pay her rent, she moved in with relatives, who questioned the objectives and tactics of the fund-raisers.
You might think that Southeast officials would try to keep a low profile.
But Southeast's president, John Bryan Ascher, wants to be mayor of Baltimore.
He filed for office April 5, and he said recently that he would try to raise enough money to run a high-profile campaign.
"I don't have a specific goal, but I want to raise enough money to lend this campaign visibility," Mr. Ascher said. "What I intend to do in this campaign is to point out that people like [Mayor Kurt L.] Schmoke who run around pushing dope legalization have to be put out of office."
Members of Mrs. Overington's family contend that Mr. Ascher's political aspirations are phony and that the real goal of his campaign is to help him raise money for Southeast. The organization, which has its headquarters on the southwestern edge of Baltimore, is the local arm of the controversial Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr. organization.
"It's a way to pull people in and give their group legitimacy," said Mary Rotz, the youngest of Mrs. Overington's five daughters, who lives in Hagerstown. ". . . They would tell [my mother] of all the LaRouche candidates who run.
"We were concerned that my mother, living in Baltimore alone, might be mugged, but we never thought this would happen," Ms. Rotz added. "They're slick; they know their stuff. It's a smooth operation."
Mr. Ascher, 40, a 1969 graduate of Friends School who attended Johns Hopkins for two years, does not deny that large sums were received from Mrs. Overington, but he insists that Southeast did nothing illegal in soliciting money from her.
He said she donated money voluntarily to a cause she believed in and turned away from the organization only after being pressured by what he called a "strike force" composed of federal and Virginia state prosecutors and members of the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights organization.
He said that this "strike force" was a creation of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and others and that it was bent on destroying the LaRouche organization.
Maryland and Baltimore prosecutors have said that although some of the methods used by Southeast employees might be questionable, they have scant evidence that Southeast acted illegally in its dealings with Mrs. Overington.
"You've got to prove the crime of theft, and we could not prove the crime of theft," said Haven H. Kodeck, chief of the economic crimes division of the Baltimore state's attorney's office, which looked into the matter a year ago. "The elements just weren't there, and without all the elements you cannot prosecute a crime."
Relatives of Mrs. Overington have said they are not optimistic about recovering the money through civil proceedings, noting that even in cases where judges have awarded judgments against the LaRouche organization, exhaustive legal challenges have thwarted efforts to collect.
John B. Russell Jr., chief of the investigative and enforcement section of the Virginia attorney general's office, said that money gathered by Southeast was forwarded to the LaRouche headquarters in Leesburg, Va.
LaRouche, who is serving a 15-year federal prison sentence for mail fraud and tax evasion, is the mastermind of a nationwide fund-raising network based in Virginia that has been the target of state and federal prosecutions.
Virginia authorities are familiar with the workings of Southeast because in 1989, Mr. Ascher's wife, Rochelle Joyce "Shelly" Ascher, was sentenced in Virginia to 10 years in prison -- the jury had recommended an 86-year-sentence -- for soliciting fraudulent loans, some of them from elderly people who testified that they had depleted their savings and were never repaid.
Mrs. Ascher, who is out of prison on an appeal bond, was described by Virginia prosecutors as the head of LaRouche's Baltimore phone team.
"We are aware of several complaints from people who have been solicited by Southeast Literature Sales and have wound up contributing large sums of money who now feel they were misled," Mr. Russell said. "To the best of my knowledge, no one has brought criminal charges [in Maryland], but when the [LaRouche] organization has the history it has of fraud in its fund raising, and we continue to get complaints, that concerns me."
Overington family members say they are still bewildered over how Mrs. Overington -- a frugal, clear-headed Goucher College graduate with a Cornell University master's degree in chemistry -- could have been persuaded to part with almost $750,000 in less than a year.
Notes, stock records, canceled checks and other documents kept by Mrs. Overington, as well as her recollections, give an indication of the lengths to which Southeast went to solicit money from her.
Mrs. Overington, now 83, was first contacted by Southeast on Jan. 31, 1989, when a man identified by her as Keith Levit telephoned and asked her if she wanted to subscribe to Executive Intelligence Review, a magazine that detailed LaRouche's beliefs on the need for a strong defense.
Mr. Russell said a trial was still pending for Mr. Levit, who has remained since 1987 under a Virginia indictment for loan fraud stemming from the same investigation that led to the conviction of Mrs. Ascher.
Mrs. Overington, who described herself as a Reagan Republican who favored the "star wars" Strategic Defense Initiative and other conservative causes, said her conversation with Mr. Levit led her to believe that she had found someone who understood her politics better than did her more liberal children.
"He knew that I was conservative and interested in politics, and he talked about things that I thought were good, like nuclear energy," Mrs. Overington said. "I was delighted to find someone who was so attractive and believed in the same things I did."
It was not long before Mr. Levit brought Mrs. Ascher to the apartment. That was April 8, 1989.
Mrs. Ascher showered her with attention during visits that sometimes lasted for hours and won her confidence, Mrs. Overington said.
Then the money started flowing out. A month after she met Mrs. Ascher, Mrs. Overington handed over a check for $32,000. Then $18,200. Then $30,000. Then $20,000. Then $38,500.
During this period, Mrs. Overington also turned over stock certificates she kept in a safe deposit box in Waynesboro, Pa. In June 1989, she gave Southeast 1,300 shares of Colgate Palmolive stock and 300 shares in General Motors Corp.
She and her family say her sizable portfolio of blue-chip stocks all but disappeared within a few months, with many of the transfers to Southeast being made under the signature of Mr. Ascher, the mayoral candidate.
In December 1989, when Mrs. Overington says she was down to her last $80,000 in available stock certificates, Mrs. Ascher asked for those funds, too, to feed hungry East Germans, according to Mrs. Overington. She says Mrs. Ascher pressured her into giving beyond her means by arriving early, staying late and talking constantly.
"She'd come at about 6:30 or 7 [in the evening] when she knew I was tired, and it would be 11:30 before she left, sometimes past midnight," Mrs. Overington recalled. "I couldn't get rid of them until I paid them the money."
Within a year, Mrs. Overington had turned over $741,268.84 in cash, checks and securities to Southeast, according to records kept by the Overington family.
Mrs. Overington said she gave away so much money that she no longer believed she could afford her own apartment, and she moved to the Waynesboro home of another daughter, Peggy Weller.
"I said, 'Rochelle [Ascher], I don't think I've got enough to live on,' but she would insist anyhow," Mrs. Overington said.
What she has left to live on now, she says, includes the dividends from stock she had donated to Goucher College, stock in a family business and dividends from securities she allowed a friend to use as collateral for a loan.
Southeast's office is at 3916 Vero Road in the Benson Industrial Park in the Violetville section of Baltimore County. Campaign documents list Mr. Ascher's address as 3726 Benson Ave., which is close to the Southeast offices but just inside the city line.
LaRouche candidates -- in 1986 the organization claimed more than 800 candidates on primary ballots across the county -- are often accused of combining elements of racism, anti-Semitism, radical industrial policy and vitriolic attacks on public figures. For example, LaRouche followers accuse President Bush of planning a biological holocaust in Africa and Mr. Kissinger and CIA director William H. Webster of being Soviet agents.
Mr. Ascher, who has leveled blistering pro-drug-use accusations against Mayor Schmoke because of the mayor's call for drug decriminalization, has appeared for years to use politics to boost his LaRouche fund raising. He ran unsuccessfully for Baltimore comptroller under the LaRouche banner in 1983 after having managed an unsuccessful congressional bid for fellow LaRouche follower Debra Freeman the year before. In a five-way race for the 3rd Congressional District seat in 1986, he finished a distant second to Benjamin L. Cardin.
Mr. Russell of the Virginia attorney general's office said that money collected through LaRouche operatives in Virginia went to pay salaries of LaRouche employees and maintain a LaRouche mansion in Loudoun County, Va. He contended that, typically, only a small fraction of the donations went to the purpose claimed by the LaRouche operatives.
"If it cost them $50,000 to publish a pamphlet, they might raise $1 million for that purpose," Mr. Russell said.
Mr. Ascher, when questioned about the money obtained in Baltimore from Mrs. Overington, said, "She had supported the [LaRouche] organization, that was clear. What was unfair was the targeting of her by a federal strike force. I think when someone acts out of their own free will in supporting something they believe in, they shouldn't be targeted that way."
Shelly Ascher did not return a reporter's telephone call.
Mr. Ascher said that the tactics used by Southeast had nothing to do with the Baltimore mayoral campaign and that Southeast was raising money in part to help LaRouche run for president next year from his prison cell. "What goes on in this office is not linked per se with my campaign," Mr. Ascher said of Southeast's fund raising. "What do you think this has to do with my mayoral campaign?"