Money has always played a big part in Rep. Tony Coelho's political life. The millions of dollars he raised while head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) in 1981-86 earned Coelho (D-Calif.) the gratitude and votes of his colleagues when he ran for and won the post of majority whip, the No. 3 leadership job, in late 1986. Coelho, an epileptic, also used his platform as a political leader to help raise money for a charitable foundation to help others with epilepsy. It was money again -- continuing questions about his personal finances -- that prompted his surprise announcement Friday that he will resign from Congress June 15, his 47th birthday. The immediate source of Coelho's problems was an unusual $100,000 high-yield "junk" bond investment he made in 1986 with the help of several favors from Thomas Spiegel, a Beverly Hills, Calif., savings and loan association executive he had met at political events and who was a major DCCC donor. Coelho said in an interview two weeks ago that his junk bond investment was a mistake that taught him "I shouldn't be involved in things I don't know about." One close friend suggested yesterday that Coelho, a man of modest wealth -- nearly all of it acquired since his election to Congress in 1978 -- got in over his head on the junk bond deal because he is a "risk taker" who thought he could play in the "fast league" of the wealthy men like Spiegel who are major political donors. "There is a part of Tony, he used to say he was a political entrepreneur, and I think in a way he was trying to be an economic entrepreneur," the friend said. "He's a guy who takes risks." Meeting such successful businessmen at fund-raising functions might have encouraged Coelho to take a plunge in the Wall Street financial markets, this friend said. "It's hard for any politician to be expected to raise money on a personal basis when he's in a $200 suit and they are in $1,000 suits. Does some of that rub off? Maybe it does." When The Washington Post first reported on the junk bond deal in April, Coelho said he made $6,882 in the less than six months he held the bond. He would not say who recommended he make the purchase, his largest securities investment and his first in junk bonds. Drexel Burnham Lambert issued the bonds and they were available generally only to regular Drexel customers. Drexel's political action committee and several junk bond traders, including recently indicted junk bond king Michael Milken, made large contributions to the DCCC in 1985-86. Two weeks ago, Coelho acknowledged for the first time that Spiegel both suggested the investment and bought the bond for him, holding it for him for a month when Coelho could not complete arrangements to borrow the entire purchase price. When he had arranged the loans he needed, Coelho paid Spiegel for the bond. He paid the original price, though the bond's market value had risen $4,000 in the intervening month. Coelho also said two weeks ago that he had failed to report on his financial disclosure statement that Spiegel's thrift lent him $50,000 to make the purchase. And he said he might have to pay more income taxes on his profit because of errors by his accountant. A review of Coelho's personal finances shows that while the 1986 junk bond deal was an unusually large and risky investment, using all borrowed money, he had made a similar investment a year earlier. In early 1985 he bought a small interest in a partnership being marketed by Walsh Greenwood & Co., a Wall Street investment firm, after hearing about it from DCCC fund-raiser Terrence McAuliffe. The principals of Walsh Greenwood were both DCCC donors. As in the Drexel deal, Coelho borrowed the entire $100,000 purchase price, this time from two California banks. One bank gave Coelho an unsecured $50,000 loan, meaning he was not required to put up any collateral. When Coelho was first elected to Congress in 1978, the record shows, his investment habits were more cautious. He bought his house in Alexandria a month after the election for $170,000 with a conventional mortgage, putting 20 percent down. Since then he has made extensive renovations and jokingly refers to "the house honoraria built." He has refinanced the house three times. The latest refinancing, last fall, increased his mortgage to $430,000. He used the money to pay off other debts and sent $60,000 to the trustee of the blind trust he set up last June. Close friends of Coelho said yesterday that the six-term congressman is a much more complicated individual than indicated in some recent news accounts describing a single-minded pol who pressured interest groups for big money for Democratic causes. Coelho studied for the priesthood as a young man, but was forced to leave the seminary after it was discovered he had epilepsy. He has said he contemplated suicide at the time. The disease is a nervous disorder that causes periodic seizures but usually can be controlled with medication. Comedian Bob Hope gave him a job and encouraged him on the political path he followed. Martin D. Franks, who was executive director of the DCCC during Coelho's tenure, said yesterday, "He doesn't get half the credit he deserves. He didn't just raise money. He was a brilliant strategist." Franks said Coelho rebuilt the DCCC at a time Ronald Reagan's 1980 landslide was encouraging Republicans to feel they could take control of the Democratic-dominated House. "Tony had a very important cheerleader role" for the party at a critical time, Franks said. Friends and opponents agree that Coelho has been an aggressive, energetic and very ambitious congressman. While he was chairman of the DCCC, he spent nearly every weekend on the road fund-raising for the party and collecting political IOUs. He now realizes, one friend said, that he missed important years with his wife, Phyllis, and their two daughters, now teen-agers. The same Coelho who made partisan attacks on GOP candidates also worked quietly and without seeking publicity, close acquaintances added, to counsel epileptics around the country. Despite his ambitions, he made politically risky decisions to defend friends convicted of horrible crimes. Several years ago he wrote officials on behalf of a California friend's son who had committed a heinous murder. Last month he publicly defended John P. Mack, a close friend and top aide to House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), who resigned after a Washington Post article described his vicious beating of a woman 16 years ago. Coelho clearly has been a target of Republicans, at least in part because of his success in raising money for the DCCC, particularly from corporate political action committees (PACs). House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) says in talks criticizing the advantages enjoyed by Democratic House incumbents that Coelho "raised extortion to an art form" in his fund-raising. Gingrich urges listeners to read "Honest Graft," the book about Coelho's days at the DCCC, written by Wall Street Journal reporter Brooks Jackson. The unusual access Coelho gave Jackson is a sign of both the risk-taking and self-promotional sides of his personality, friends said. In the book, Coelho acknowledges that soliciting interest groups might keep a legislator from introducing a bill that would upset donors. "I think that the process buys you out," he said. "But I don't think that you individually have been bought out or that you sell out. There's a big difference there." The House ethics committee counsel investigating Wright mentioned Coelho in his report. Richard J. Phelan cited a note pledging "assistance" that Coelho sent to Donald Dixon, another DCCC donor and owner of a troubled Texas savings and loan association. Coelho then asked Wright to call Dixon, and Wright intervened with federal regulators on Dixon's behalf. After Dixon's S&L was taken over by federal regulators, it was discovered that he had furnished planes and a yacht for Coelho and other politicians to use for fund-raising, without charging for their use. Coelho's campaign committee and the DCCC paid back nearly $50,000, claiming the free use of the plane and boat was an oversight. The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that Coelho set up a meeting in early 1988 between a member of the House Banking and Urban Affairs Committee and a lobbyist for Spiegel, who helped him on the junk bond investment. One associate said Coelho regularly offered "assistance" to DCCC donors and set up meetings for them with House colleagues. Franks said Coelho played "hardball" in 1981 with PAC officials who had supported GOP challengers the year before. "He delivered the following message: 'The Democrats are in the majority, and you might want to think about what is in your best business interest.' He also said: 'Democratic committee chairmen might not be happy to know you are trying to make them the ranking minority member.' Is that extortion? I don't think so. Is that hardball? You bet." Two close friends of Coelho said yesterday that he told them six months ago, before questions were raised about his personal finances, that he was thinking about leaving Congress. While the decision would be traumatic for any ambitious politician, one friend said, Coelho seemed relieved by his decision. "I think Tony still wants to be a priest," one friend said. "He woke me up this morning and asked if I was all right. The fact is he's gone through worse {the despair he faced after epilepsy forced him to leave the seminary} than most of us will ever know."