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.