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Women defend pyramid 'gifting'

Knight Ridder Business News

SALEM — Standing with 100 other women on the Capitol steps Friday, Rebecca Holt said she felt like part of a swelling wave of social change based on women helping women by giving each other cash gifts.

She also says that state laws should be changed to stop authorities from investigating the Women's Dinner Party as an illegal pyramid scheme.

Social change is always hard, said Holt, who lives in Ashland. These women are not out buying BMWs with their money. That's not what these women are about. Gifting feels like I'm giving to my daughter, or my sister or my mother. There is no thought of getting it back.

But gift-givers like Holt do get money back. Sometimes lots of it.

Women join the party in groups of eight by giving a cash gift to one woman at the top of a chart containing seven names. The top woman then drops out of the party and the group splits into two.

When eight new donors join one of the groups, its top member receives eight cash gifts and the group splits again. In theory, the original donors eventually rise to the top of their party group and receive gifts.

State and local law enforcement officials say the party is doomed to fail when there are no longer enough women left to put money into the rapidly multiplying party groups.

Jan Margosian, spokeswoman for the state attorney general's consumer protection division, said Friday that civil and criminal investigations continue in several Oregon counties.

Since investigators brought the dinner parties to public attention a month ago, Margosian's office has received no complaints from participants who believe they've been victimized.

Usually you don't get complaints from people who are participating in something illegal, Margosian said.

Even though state officials say the dinner party violates criminal laws and regulations governing fair trade and securities, a dozen participants insisted Friday that they are giving their money away freely and without expectation of gain.

We want the public to know this is a group with integrity, said Lisa Dobbie of Eugene, who estimated that many thousands of women are involved statewide.

She said women from Bend, Ashland, Roseburg, Prineville, Seattle, Hood River, Cottage Grove, Portland and other cities in Central and Western Oregon attended Friday's demonstration of support for the parties. One woman, who declined to give her name, said she attended an information meeting about the dinner party with 600 other women.

Several women took the microphone Friday to tell how they were helped with medical bills or other personal tragedies by gifts given to them through the club.

Darla Toebe of Springfield said she joined the club so that she could get money to give to a family with a child in need of an organ transplant. To get a spot in the dinner party, Toebe said she contributed, along with seven other women, to a woman who needed money to send a child to college.

I had a good feeling when I gave my money to that lady, she said. As a group, we are making a difference we couldn't make by ourselves.

Vickie Puls, who drove with five other women from Grants Pass, said she believes government investigators are mistaken about the motives that women have for being involved in the dinner parties.

Puls said she is at the top of her party group and plans to give away her gifts — including some to a sister who is the single mother of three and who could never raise the down payment for a home otherwise.

There is no selfishness going on here. It's an opportunity to help people, she said.