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Doorway to a Cult?

by Joe Russakoff
City Paper (Philadelphia, PA), 6/26-7/3/87

The Eastern Service Workers Association (ESWA) is a self-styled "mutual benefits association" for poor people. Anyone passing by its nondescript storefront office at 1518 South Street would never suspect it to be the outer fringe of an elaborate network of organizations founded by Eugenio Perente, a former Shakespearean actor turned political revolutionary, who once declared war on California and is described by one hometown friend as a "brilliant con man." Yet ESWA is in fact one of 41 "locals" across the country which make up Perente's amorphous National Labor Federation (NLF). Over the years, both Perente and the NLF have been charged by numerous journalists, cult-watchers, parents and ex-volunteers with the systematic use of deception, manipulation and mind-control techniques to advance the aims of a shadowy cult whose inner circle plots revolution while keeping unknowing volunteers in the dark about its actual goals.

A close view of Perente's organization reveals that there is indeed a loose cannon on the left-wing's deck. Just how dangerous the NLF is is a matter for speculation. Some organizers on the political left familiar with Perente's organization don't take it seriously. One observer lightly dubbed it "the cadre that couldn't shoot straight," while another remarked that it seemed to get its ideas about political organizing from Masters of Deceit, J. Edgar Hoover's dubious account of communist subversion in America. However, the National Lawyers Guild publication Public Eye warned that the organization had "the potential for disintegrating into armed violence, or a situation similar to that which led to the tragic mass suicide at the People's Temple in Jonestown."

Superficially, ESWA's operation on South Street, staffed by volunteers who work up to 18 hours a day, isn't all that imposing. ESWA opened its Philadelphia office in 1976 with the express purpose of organizing poor people into a "mutual benefit association." All of its literature emphasizes its apolitical nature. Through its solicitations for donations and recruitment of members, it has developed a reputation among many in the city including volunteer service organizers, as a well meaning and/or overly persistent group of extremely dedicated volunteers.

Outreach worker Elaine Willie of the Mayor's Office of Community Services has referred needy people to ESWA, reporting, "They are very helpful, although they have some practices I don't agree with."

The Volunteer Action Committee (VAC), an independent referral agency, has referred people to ESWA who are interested in volunteering time to work with poor people. This does not qualify as an endorsement, however, because VAC does not check up on the claims of organizations in their portfolio. "Our aim is to represent as many organizations and make as many referrals as possible," explained a VAC staff person, who did not want to be identified, adding, "Hopefully, an individual's common sense would alert him if something seemed wrong."

What these agencies were unaware of is that the Cult Awareness Network, a Chicago based information clearinghouse, lists ESWA and all NLF locals as fronts for a clandestine orthodox political cult. Reg Oliver, information officer for Cult Awareness, said that NLF operates like any other cult, using a ruse to attract people to the organization, then gaining control of them through common mind control techniques such as "sleep deprivation, badgering, confrontation, lousy food, an ongoing banter, and isolation from outside influences," adding that the group particularly victimizes "people of a left wing persuasion who think they'll be doing something for society."

Oliver believes Eugenio Perente, NLF's founder and leader, probably attended the controversial drug treatment program Synanon at one point (others also suspect this), and that Perente then adapted many of that group's techniques to his own organization. (Synanon based its treatment on the concept of "attack therapy," which created a closed environment in which the addict was confronted and attacked until his ego was broken. He would then be recreated as a drug-free member of Synanon. Critics charged ex-addicts never left Synanon, and the whole program operated like founder Chuck Dederich's personal cult.)

Personal Encounters

If someone happened to pass by ESWA and see a few old women or a couple of younger people in there working quietly, Oliver's charges might seem farfetched. However, many anecdotes from ex-volunteers seem to confirm that what we have here is not just another outreach program.

There is City Paper writer Anne LeRoy's college friend whose involvement with ESWA began with a field placement there from Temple's School of Social Administration. After the semester ended, the friend became a full-time organizer, working 18 hours a day, seven days a week for no pay.

LeRoy remembered her pre-ESWA friend as being "extremely interested in art, music and literature. But now it's hard to have a conversation with her without some political analysis that is completely off the wall." The few letters LeRoy receives from her old friend are mostly about the organization and the envelopes "covered with globs of tape."

Then there is "Amy" (who was fearful about using her real name). Amy saw one of ESWA's flyers, thought it was worth checking out, and went down to volunteer. She soon discovered she got more than she bargained for. Rather than helping people, which she thought she was going to do, the organization sent her out canvassing in working class neighborhoods in West Philly, Canvassing means knocking on doors and asking for money.

She also recalled, "All of a sudden people were encroaching on my life, trying to obligate all my time. Those are the type of people who really wheedle their way in. Once they're with you, they're hard to shake.

Apparently mistaking her acquiescence for approval, involved members invited her to an "important secret meeting" in New York. Warned not to tell anybody where they were going, she rode in a van with about five other people to a hall in Brooklyn, where an undercurrent of violence disturbed her. "There were guys walking around in Army clothes and someone gave a speech about violence and how it was important to build up the organization to the point where capitalism would tip over."

Rather than finding the speech inflammatory, Amy found it torturously boring because the speaker "said about one word every thirty seconds." (This was apparently a meeting of the National Labor College (NLC). NLC meetings, which were similarly described in an article in the National Lawyers Guild publication, Public Eye, apparently serve as Perente's pep rallies.)

After the speech, a woman who Amy felt was assigned to cover her "hung on to me and kept talking about the speech and asking me what I thought." Apparently, Amy didn't think much because she broke off contact with the group soon after.

And then there is Bob Small, coordinator of the Poets and Prophets series at Bacchanal, just down the street from ESWA. He saw one of their flyers and thought he would help out on Saturdays. "Their hearts seemed to be in the right place," Small remembered. "But for the amount of effort put in, more should have been accomplished. Mostly I referred people who came in to other agencies."

Small soon felt something was going on just under the surface: "I began to get the feeling I get when I'm around people in some kind of religious cult. It was almost mystical. They acted like they knew something I didn't, but at some point I could become part of the inner circle.

"Then they started looking for a full-time commitment. It fell off from 'Thanks, you're doing a good job' to 'You have to do more.' I said 'You want me on a full-time basis, you just lost me on a part-time basis. Bye guys, good luck.'"

LaRouche Watch Yields Perente

Stories like these are familiar to former Public Eye editor Chip Berlet, who has been monitoring Perente's organization since it cropped up during an investigation of Lyndon LaRouche. He said LaRouche and Perente probably haven't worked together since an ego battle caused Perente to break off and start his own outfit about 1974. However, says Berlet, LaRouche and Perente use similar techniques to maintain their organizations, namely deception, manipulation, mind control, and instilling in their followers the belief of some imminent apocalyptic event.

Berlet discounts NLF's claims of membership in the hundreds of thousands, putting the number closer to "a couple hundred," along with a couple thousand people who don't know what's really going on or who help out but aren't really part of the organization.

Likening their intrigues to "children playing with decoder rings," Berlet said they're harmless, that their talk of violence is just that, talk. However, he added, "Any group with an apocalyptic vision has the potential" for some irrational act.

"The real tragedy," he commented, "is that a lot of people who could have contributed something have been sucked up in the organization."

I asked Berlet to explain how they can maintain 41 organizations across the country, if their actual membership is so small. "You only need six people to have ten groups," he said.

And what about the money, food and clothes they collect for poor people? "They spend it, eat it and wear it."

What Does ESWA Do?

This charge strikes at the heart of ESWA's ten point benefit program, which Operations Manager Dave Wientraub claims provides members with clothes, emergency food, comprehensive medical care, preventive dental care, and assorted other benefits, all for 62 cents a month. He asserts, "Anybody who comes in who needs something, this organization will fight like hell to see they get what they need."

At the last of three meetings I had with Wientraub, a half dozen volunteers, mostly older women who had never heard of Perente or NLF, gathered in the ESWA office to defend the organization. They all had stories about how they joined ESWA after it saved them from hopeless situations. For instance, one member said, "I found out about this organization when I had no food in my house and had no where to turn. I saw someone walking down the street with a bag of groceries. I asked her where she got them and she sent me here."

The groceries must have been pretty good, because since that time, about five years ago, this member has been volunteering every spare minute of her time, often working eighteen hours a day for the organization.

It is virtually impossible to get outside verification of ESWA's claims since they are not accountable to any outside agency, are not listed as a tax-exempt organization with the IRS, keep all records secret, and will not provide uninvolved references.

It took an hour of walking around and asking questions in the impoverished neighborhood surrounding the ESWA office to find anyone who had received anything from ESWA. An elderly couple, obviously very poor, said they had gone there about eight months earlier but stopped going "because it wasn't worth it. What we mostly got was old onions and sprouted potatoes."

More questions about ESWA's benefits program are raised by an incident which happened to Jim Stix, who used to work at the shelter, My Brother's House, just around the corner. The shelter had several surplus bags of clothes, so Stix decided to bring them to ESWA, believing they would be distributed to the community.

Stix recalled, "when the volunteers saw the clothes, they stopped working and started eyeing them. As soon as I put the bags down, they pounced on them, rooted through and tried stuff on.

"I stopped by a couple of times to see if I could find out something about the group but no one would answer any direct questions about the infrastructure or goals of the group. But they did ask me to join," Stix said, adding, "I always got the feeling I was in a surrealistic dream where everybody was busy but no one was doing anything." (Public Eye included charges by former members of NLF affiliates that they were kept busy all the time with inane tasks so they wouldn't get a chance to think critically about the organization.)

The reliability of members' claims is also compromised by the fact they often contradicted each other. For instance, I received three different answers to the simple question, "How often is food distributed?": every other Friday, every Friday and every day.

Volunteers also contradicted each other when I asked how many members ESWA had. One member said with certainty that ESWA had 2,000 members. A few minutes later, another member said with equal certainty that ESWA had over 10,000 members.

Who is David Wientraub, the man who leads this crew of uninformed volunteers, and how did he come to be ESWA's Operations Manager? "I was a pre-med student in New York when I met the organization about seven years ago," he said. He dropped his medical ambitions and became a full-time organizer for Eastern Farm Workers Association, the NLF charter group in Suffolk County, New York. After working in New York for a while, Wientraub heard about a position opening in Philly's ESWA office, came down, was given the job above people who had been here before him, and has held the job ever since.

He expresses contempt for other agencies that help poor people, calling charity "an insult" and social work professionals "poverty pimps, whose salaries depend on the perpetuation of poverty."

Only ESWA, he says, with its all volunteer staff and independence, is incorruptible and truly interested in "finding permanent solutions to the problems of low income people."

Blisters on ESWA

Members of ESWA have formed at least three "blister groups." ("Think of a blister," Wientraub explained. "It's something that comes out of something else.") Two of these groups work out of the South Street office--Citizens Relief Committee, and the local chapter of Committee of Concerned Legal Professionals.

Another blister group, Philadelphia Committee on the Community Arts (PCCA) has a different mailing address, the home of a professional musician who said he helps out ESWA occasionally by giving them rides. He believes they are "good, selfless people to work the way they do." He said the PCCA is in its "pre-formative state," and he agreed to allow its mail to be sent to his home. So far, his responsibilities consist of handing over unopened contribution envelopes to ESWA organizer George Gonos.

Earlier this year, Gonos, the director of the Galerie Taub on Spruce St., was involved in an incident that aroused the suspicion of the Northwest Interfaith Movement (NIM), an ecumenical group concerned in part with Central American issues.

Asked to help with the promotion and organization of an art show that was supposed to benefit El Refugio, a Texas sanctuary for refugees escaping violence in Central America, NIM sent two representatives down to the gallery to meet with Gonos this past January. One of them, Lynne Cox, recalling this, her first face-to-face meeting with Gonos, said, "I initially got the feeling something was wrong, but decided to overlook it. It was only a week before the show and no preparations were made, no invitations were sent out. At that point, I didn't think of a scam. My immediate fear was that he was a government infiltrator, and should I give him my contacts. I decided he was incompetent, but probably safe. So I went ahead with it."

Cox happens to be friends with then co-director of El Refugio Margaret Singer. During a conversation with Cox, Singer revealed she didn't know anything about any benefit and never heard of Gonos or the Galerie Taub.

NIM members confronted Gonos with this information and demanded he prove the legitimacy of the show. When he was unable to produce any evidence, NIM withdrew support. the show was postponed and held quietly sometime later.

Now that NIM was on guard, other things about the show didn't seem entirely kosher. For instance, Gonos had recommended that checks be made out to an outfit called the National Equal Justice Association (NEJA), an organization he told them was tax exempt. NIM did some checking and found that NEJA wasn't listed in the Cumulative List of Organizations Described in Section 170(c) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1954, indicating NEJA was probably not a tax exempt organization able to receive tax deductible contributions.

No phone number was available for NEJA, a sponsor of many NLF fundraisers. Its address is a post office box in Camden Plaza Station in Brooklyn, which happens to be where Perente was last reported living.

In addition, it was learned that a similar auction in Suffolk County, New York, also sponsored by NEJA, was postponed under similar circumstances. Also involved in that show was the Suffolk Committee on Community Arts, a blister group of Eastern Farm Workers Association (EFWA), the NLF charter group founded by Perente in 1972. Diane Ramirez, identified by Berlet as Perente's lieutenant, is the Arena Operations Manager of EFWA and, according to Gonos, was the link between him and El Refugio.

In addition, a NIM memorandum dated Feb. 11 charged that Gonos has a "pattern of using other people's names without their permission in order to gain access to other persons and/or resources."

Lawrence Barth, Pennsylvania Deputy Attorney General for Charitable Trusts and Organizations, is investigating NIM's charges. Gonos could not be reached for comment.

Lynn Cox was to see Gonos one more time, at the Haverford Peace Fair. He was recruiting students for ESWA. "Only he changed his appearance like a chameleon," she said. "When I saw him at the gallery he looked like a straight laced gallery owner. At the Peace Fair he looked like a scruffy peacenik."

Perente: The Man Behind It All

Are you confused? Join the club. To help understand Perente's group, it is helpful to use Chip Berlet's image of an onion. On the outside are the 41 NLF locals across the country. "As you peel away the layers, you get closer to the center, which is Perente and a small clique," he explained.

Berlet, and some former members of NLF, charge that the outer layers exist less to help poor people, and more to attract recruits to the alleged political cult, as well as to sustain it through volunteers' solicitations.

But who is Eugenio Perente, the figure in the center of all this? To answer this question, I used the Summer '84 issue of Public Eye which had a special section on his organization.

His real name is Gerald Doeden and he grew up in Marysville, California. A friend from that time remembers Doeden as "someone who could sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo, then charge him 30 percent extra for being so far north."

He arrived in San Francisco in the late 60s where he found a niche in the thriving political scene there. He opened the Little Red Bookstore and through it organized the Liberation Army Revolutionary Group (LARGO). In 1970, he sent mimeographed letters to several state agencies, warning that "a fully trained, equipped and manned army of revolution will be operating in Northern California starting March 15."

The army apparently got cold feet, however, and Doeden made an unceremonious departure from California. Since then he has set several more deadlines for the outbreak of revolution, all which have come and gone.

He showed up in New York in the early 70s, calling himself Eugenio Perente-Ramos. He worked with the United Farmworkers (UFW), but not in the capacity of leader, as NLF literature claims. Delores Huerta, who actually led the boycott and is still with UFW, remembers Perente as a "colorful biker type who played a small role in the boycott for about nine months or a year."

After he left UFW, however, Huerta remembers "He created a lot of problems for the union, attacking us in the press. Then he went off and formed his own group."

All in all, she said, "I can't remember anything positive he did, only negative."

The group Perente started was the Eastern Farm Workers Association. He apparently tried joining forces with LaRouche, but ego problems saw that collaboration fizzle.

In 1976, EFWA expanded into a national organization, NLF, and started groups modeled after the charter group all over the country. They all have non-offensive names like California Homemakers Association, The Committee of Concerned Medical Professionals--and Eastern Service Workers Association.

In order to entice volunteers into joining the inner circles of Perente's organizations, bits and pieces of information are given a little at a time. This includes the organization's secret mythology, which tells how a small group in the Communist Party broke off, went through several organizational changes, and finally formed the clandestine group in the center of NLF. Berlet and several former members discount this history as a fairy tale.

Another part of the mythology, which is more troubling, includes stories of ties with Central American revolutionaries and Cuba. The Cuban government denies this, and the organization's observers discount it as more lies.

These claims, however, cause much concern among those who have heard them, because Perente's followers are known for their loose lips and have boasted of these ties to many potential recruits. The government has undoubtedly gotten wind of this talk, which could give a pretext for coming down hard on domestic dissenters and resisters, as well as making war in that region.

Also, in 1984, the FBI raided Perente's Brooklyn headquarters, ostensibly acting on the belief there was a cache of weapons hidden there. No weapons were seized but the FBI carted away NLF's extensive files on potential recruits--a comprehensive, detailed, cross referenced index of activists. This is ironic considering Wientraub's innuendo, directed at me, about "police informants posing as reporters." It appears his organization, perhaps unintentionally, became an informer of massive proportions.

NLF's carelessness with security as well as facts, caused a former member to comment in Public Eye, "They're either agent provocateurs or very, very stupid."

It is clear that there is a loose cannon on deck, an organization that plays revolution by exploiting individuals while inviting government surveillance on the whole movement. In addition, who knows how many people have been turned off to the idea of participating in causes because of a bad experience with Perente's group.

Perente's followers have a history of infiltrating unsuspecting organizations that dates back to 1975 when Diane Ramirez volunteered to help an ecumenical group called the Commission on Voluntary Service and Action (CVSA) publish Invest Yourself, a listing of volunteer opportunities for students and church members. Gradually, she gained control of CVSA, packing the board with Perente's followers and turning Invest Yourself into a listing of NLF groups. This was the first of numerous documented complaints about NLF by organizations, parents, cult watchers, ex-members and journalists.

Berlet commented that many alternative publications are reluctant to touch the Perente story for fear of being charged with red baiting. And mainstream papers find stories about heirs donating millions of dollars to LaRouche more exiting than a few naive idealists who get taken in by Perente's outfit. However, idealism is the fuel of social change, and we can't afford to lose another person.