Mail Tribune, December 1996
By Alberto Enriquez
Medford, Oregon -- For more than 20 years, they've quietly collected cash, clothing and food. From St. Mark's Episcopal Church, they've received turkeys. From the American Association of University Women, they've received sweaters and other warm hand-me-downs. And from bereaved survivors, they've garnered memorial contributions in obituary notices.
Spokesmen for the Northwest Seasonal Workers Association, Jackson County Fuel Committee, and Ashland Community Service Center said those donations were for the poor or victims of natural disasters.
But members of a national cult-watch organization say the three Rogue Valley groups are one and the same, part of a leftist political cult that has 57 similar fronts in eight states.
In a Nov. 11 raid on the group's Brooklyn headquarters, New York police found an arsenal of 50 guns, rifles and shotguns and components for explosive devices. Five members have since been charged with weapons violations.
New York newspapers reported at the time that the group, known as the National Labor Federation (NATLFED) or Provisional Communist Party among other names, had revolutionary pretensions but in practice amounted to a personality cult founded by the late Gerald Doeden, a northern California con man. He assumed the name Eugene Perente-Ramos and acquired a following from the early 1970s to his death in March 1995.
A spokeswoman for the Northwest Seasonal Workers Association at 203 Oakdale Avenue in Medford declined an interview. She acknowledged that her group is not a nonprofit organization.
Cult-watchers say the group is also active in California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas. They say that in Oregon, besides the Rogue Valley fronts the group has an office called Friends of Seasonal and Service Workers in Portland.
But exactly what the organization does is unclear.
Irene Davidson, a New York resident and mother of a former NATLFED member, said the group controls its members with heavy workloads, little sleep and veiled threats. Davidson said the best of the goods received, and all of the money taken in, went to support the national organization.
"It's an organization that was founded as a very imaginative man's game, an elaborate and very destructive game which existed to provide absolute power, sex, drugs, everything to Perente," Davidson said.
The alleged diversion of donations to a hidden agenda didn't surprise Father Mark Cach, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Medford.
"That fits exactly into what I had them pegged," Cach said. "We have tried in the past to do some cooperative work with them, but we have always been very cautious."
Cach said his suspicions were aroused years ago when the Northwest Seasonal Workers Association first requested help with a fund-raising drive -- but refused to let him look at its books.
"I mean, I could understand how you don't want to show your books to anyone and everyone, but come on, as a donor I should have access to your books," Cach said. "You see good stuff brought in, and you see basically that they keep the good stuff for themselves -- and I've heard that 100 percent of the money that comes in goes to the organization."
Cach said he recently was contacted by longtime Seasonal Workers spokesman Chris Day seeking free use of copiers, but he agreed only to a meeting.
"Personally, I doubt the poor are being helped that much," Cach said.
"I think also they are very deceptive."
Christian Mathisen, an outreach coordinator at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, said his church has nothing to do with the Seasonal Workers, but provides Thanksgiving baskets to them just as it does all organizations requesting them. The list of recipients includes mainstream nonprofits such as the Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul.
"We do take it on faith that they do get it to those in need," Mathisen said.
Although St. Mark's is across the street from the Seasonal Workers' Medford office, Mathisen said the church has had little contact with the organization.
That's not unusual. Although the Northwest Seasonal Workers Association has been active in the Rogue Valley since the early 1970s, other said they too know little of its inner workings.
Wanda Powell, a spokeswoman for the American Association of University Women, said the local AAUW chapter has donated clothes to the group for years.
"I had the impression that they were a nonprofit organization," Powell said. "If this isn't the case, we would probably not be donating."
Jose Arreguin, formerly head of the Convenio de Raices Mexicanas, a farmworker cooperative based in Phoenix, said that the Convenio occasionally agreed to coordinate activities with the Seasonal Workers. Members frequently invited him to meetings, but he declined.
Arreguin said, "I don't understand very well what is their status. I understand that they are not a nonprofit. They don't have a 501c(3). They have individual donors only. I know they have helped some families."
A staffer at the group's Medford office who identified herself only as "Barbara" did not deny connections with the National Labor Federation or Provisional Communist Party, but she said she had not heard of them.
She refused repeated requests by a reporter to speak to a manager, while at the same time insisting on hearing first what the questions would be. Several times, she wrote individual questions onto a piece of paper and carried them into an adjoining room. When asked again if a reporter could speak to the person in the back room, she replied, "Well, she's gone upstairs now."
Finally, she said the organization requires reporters to fill out interview forms before granting interviews, but she could not produce the form. Instead, a form asking the "general purpose" and "specific categories of fact" arrived at the Mail Tribune the next day.
Jeff Whitnack, a former NATLFED member and San Francisco Bay Area freelance investigative reporter, was among the first to document the group's activities, including a 1984 background piece in Public Eye, a publication of Political Research Associates in Cambridge, Mass.
"They don't do formal interviews," Whitnack said. "That's just part of their policy."
Whitnack said the three Rogue Valley organizations are NATLFED fronts, and that he had been in contact with Rogue Valley members while he was briefly involved with NATLFED in Oklahoma.
Whitnack pointed to a March 20, 1995 obituary in which the New York Times was tricked into eulogizing Perente as a legitimate activist with ties to the United Farm Workers. The Times retracted the obit the next day, stating that Dan Fiske and Christopher Day, who provided much of the information for the obituary, had exaggerated Perente's UFW connections and covered up his cult activities.
Christopher Day is the same Chris Day who has long been a local spokesman for the Rogue Valley groups, Whitnack said.
Cult-watcher Irene Davidson said a group of NATLFED ex-members had identified Lon Christiansen among the handcuffed NATLFED members photographed after the raid on the organization's Brooklyn headquarters. Christiansen has been active in the Northwest Seasonal Workers Association in Medford.
Davidson said the group of NATLFED watchers maintains a Web site on the Internet to coordinate information, but parents whose adult children remain in the organization are afraid to speak out for fear of reprisals.
She said those reprisals can take the form of punishing assignments and social ostracism for the children, or cutting off communications to the parents, whose correspondence is censored.