WASHINGTON — Helen Overington reared her five children in rummage sale clothing because her husband "didn't want to spoil them." He was the kind of man, his daughters recall, who would rather risk falling downstairs in the dark than waste a watt of electricity and always looked as if his tie "held the shirt on his back."
From the way he spent money on just two things, private schooling for the children and antiques for himself, they suspected there was plenty of it. But they were astonished when he died in 1970 and left his wife more than a million dollars.
They were more astonished when they discovered in March that over the last year, their mother--so generous with her time and frugal with her money--had given more than $741,000, most of the remaining principal, to political extremist Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr.
By the time her children caught on, she could no longer afford health insurance or her Baltimore apartment. She now lives with one of her daughters in Waynesboro, Pa.
At 82, Overington is firm of handshake, sharp of mind and deeply chagrined. Like others before her, she can scarcely believe she gave so much money to an organization that sees communism, "the drug lobby" and the banking industry linked in a conspiracy to destroy LaRouche, the world's economy and the human race.
LaRouche, a three-time presidential candidate, is serving a 15-year term in federal prison for mail fraud and tax evasion. Six of his associates were convicted of related federal charges.
Four LaRouche associates have been convicted in Virginia courts of fraudulent fund-raising, often from elderly women who testified that they depleted their savings to lend the group money and were not repaid. Another associate is on trial in that case, which arose from a 1987 raid on LaRouche's headquarters in Leesburg, and 11 more are awaiting trial.
But the group has not--as state and local officials hoped after the raid--gone away. LaRouche's followers maintain financial and legal offices in Leesburg and run a publishing operation in eastern Loudoun.
Meanwhile, LaRouche is running for Congress from his cell, Loudoun resident Nancy Spannaus is running for the Senate under his banner, and his followers, according to Overington and others, continue their aggressive fund-raising tactics.
Overington says the LaRouche disciples who began calling and coming to see her regularly last spring were "attractive people, bright and enthusiastic people. They wanted to hear about my grandchildren. They were interested in my ideas"--sharing her enthusiasm for President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, for instance--"which my children didn't want to hear."
She said she grew particularly fond of Rochelle Ascher, who first visited the apartment April 8, 1989--three days after she was convicted in Leesburg of soliciting loans for LaRouche knowing that they would not be repaid.
In dozens of visits and phone calls between January and February, 1989, according to a calendar compiled by Overington and her children, LaRouche associates asked for contributions to pay for newspaper ads, leaflets, food for Eastern Europe and Ascher's lawyer.
Time after time, Overington's bank records show, she wrote a check--in amounts ranging from $250 to $40,000--or allowed them to drive her to her safe-deposit box for stock certificates to sell. She said her visitors often carried calculators and the stock page so they would know exactly how much they would get.
"I know, it just seems incredible," she said. "Rochelle always had a project . . . that had to be done right away." Overington is also liable for capital gains taxes on the stock sales.
She said she began to feel increasingly pressured, sometimes writing a check after several hours so they would leave her house. In early February, she told Ascher she no longer had enough money to cover her personal expenses for the rest of her life.
"She said, 'I'll promise not to ask for any more if you give me this,' " said Overington, who gave her a final $80,000. "I said you don't have to promise because you know I don't have any more."
LaRouche's followers, including Ascher in testimony at her trial, say they solicit only from people who express sympathy for their politics and give willingly.
Ascher, the first LaRouche associate to be tried after the Leesburg raid, has been free on bond while she appeals the verdict. Recently the state Attorney General's Office moved to have her bond revoked or restricted, alleging that she has been soliciting contributions--not loans--using "misrepresentation and undue pressure."
Assistant Atty. Gen. John B. Russell Jr. said he has been in touch with Overington, but his bond motion does not refer to her or any other contributors by name. "I'm aware of more than one case," he said.