As with any San Francisco dogfight, myriad organizations have piled on to the civic battle to pressure Sutter Health to rebuild St. Luke's Hospital at César Chávez and Valencia streets.
There's the California Nurses Association (CNA), the union pushing to compel Sutter Health to preserve St. Luke's organized labor jobs. There are neighborhood groups fighting to pressure Sutter Health to build its new hospital in a way that won't snarl traffic. And then there's the Physicians Organizing Committee, a self-described group of doctors and medical professionals that seems to be one of the more aggressive on the CNA side of the dispute, with representatives speaking to students at local universities, canvassing merchants, and proposing alliances with nonprofits such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
But somehow, the group has been an enigma to the controversy's main players.
"They've been able to bring physicians to hearings who can bring the authority that physicians have," CNA organizer Nato Green said, but "I don't know where they come from, or what their structure is."
Gillian Gillett is the spokeswoman for the San Jose/Guerrero Coalition to Save Our Streets, which has been lobbying Sutter Health to include a park, a senior center, and traffic calming measures as part of a rebuilt St. Luke's Hospital. Gillett said she doesn't know much about the Physicians Organizing Committee except that it seemed to be aligned with the position of the nurses' union: "There are so many people gaming this whole process that it's hard to know who's who," she says. "They say, 'We're doctors,' and describe the horrors of what's going on at St. Luke's. And people trust them because they're doctors."
Joseph Chan, an East Bay psychiatrist, has appeared at events as a professional spokesman for the group. But even he didn't seem to know much about how it was run, other than that its leaders had asked him to act as their representative.
"They arrange meetings and talks, where I go and talk with students and tell them what's happening," he said. "They are the people who organize things. They have connections with people who teach classes, so we can go and inform the students about the situation. The students are more energetic, and able to do things, because they involve the future."
When I called the committee's office number, representative Brian Tseng said his group had protocols for talking with the media, that he'd have to consult with his board of directors before describing his group's activities, and that he wasn't interested in helping with an article.
Why the seeming secrecy? Knowledgeable sources say that the Physicians Organizing Committee is one of several Bay Area front groups set up to disguise a strange political cult. Although a representative for the committee has denied the link, it has shared personnel with an alleged cult front group, and received a grant from the National Equal Justice Association (NEJA), a nonprofit shell corporation linked to the cult. (The committee's manager, meanwhile, has donated money to NEJA.) Committee representatives also deal with the press using a protocol consistent with rules laid down by the cult.
The cult, an umbrella organization based in New York, goes by names such as the Provisional Communist Party and the National Labor Federation, abbreviated as NatlFed. Historically, the stated goal of NatlFed is one that would likely even discomfit the Bay Area liberals the organization targets for recruiting: the violent overthrow of the U.S. government.
NatlFed doesn't fit most people's idea of a cult. There's no religious dogma. Instead, it's best known for preaching leftist revolution. Yet, during its 40 years of existence, it doesn't seem to have performed a single terrorist act. Decade after decade, its members have merely gone about preparing themselves for the possibility of an eventual day of insurrection — like Pentecostals awaiting the rapture.
In the meantime, the group has undertaken charitable works that Palo Alto's Jeff Whitnack, who volunteered for the group in the 1980s until he became disillusioned, refers to as "flypaper" designed to lure young idealists. They maintain what NatlFed insiders refer to as "entities" or "mutual-benefit associations" to do food drives, recruit doctors and attorneys to provide services for low-income people, and give lectures about the need for mental health services in the Mission.
For anyone living in the Bay Area, these apparent front groups are simultaneously invisible and ubiquitous. At a recent Thanksgiving dinner I attended at a San Francisco friend's house, five of the 10 adults present had volunteered for, donated to, or been contacted by NatlFed fronts.
These groups, which the FBI has linked to NatlFed, have names that make them sound like labor unions or professional associations, among them the Coalition of Concerned Medical Professionals, the Coalition of Concerned Legal Professionals, the California Homemakers Association, and the Western Farm Workers Association.
None of the groups enter into collective bargaining agreements or are registered with the IRS as nonprofits. They do not publicly disclose their finances. They don't form close public alliances with community groups that have similar aims. They do not publish their regular activities, have Web sites, or create any public documentation of how they function. They keep themselves all but invisible — except to those they choose to contact.
"People will become involved in NatlFed, or one of its front groups, and don't even realize the group has a political agenda," cult intervention specialist Rick Ross said. "They simply feel it's a group to help the poor, not understanding the overall thrust of the group."
Former members and volunteers of seemingly NatlFed-linked groups say there's something futile and ultimately embarrassing about having performed good works for an organization that turned out to view charity as a means to a secret end.
Erica Junghans, a Brazilian journalist who now lives in San Francisco, recalls volunteering for the Physicians Organizing Committee in 2004. She initially thought it was akin to the Union of Concerned Scientists, an organization dedicated to public awareness. Her impression changed after a trip with one of the group's self-described cadre — NatlFed jargon for group members who have given up outside pursuits to volunteer full-time for the cause — to Kaiser Permanente's Oakland Medical Center to recruit a doctor.