Montgomery County's prestigious Congressional Country Club is seeking to have one of its maverick members held in contempt of court for talking to the news media about his complex and unusual suit against his former compatriots.
Congressional's attorney, James Thompson, argued in Montgomery County Circuit Court yesterday that club member George W. Koch -- whose suit over employe wage complaints has turned into a four-year crusade -- violated a judge's order against trying his case in the press.
Judge John J. Mitchell imposed that order in a court memorandum last year where he wrote: "This case is to be heard in court, and it will not be tried by the media." It was not exactly what legal scholars would call a formal gag order, but the club is contending that Koch should still be held in contempt for talking to reporters and giving interviews about the complaints against the club that make up Koch's suit.
The case has already attracted widespread publicity both here and nationally because of the name and reputation of the Congressional County Club -- host to some of the country's most powerful businessmen and politicians -- and because of Koch's almost single-minded mission of pursuing his allegations about misuse of club funds and abuse of some of its blue-collar workers. In the past year, Koch has taken on an extraordinary persona -- an archconservative who has emerged as a staunch defender of the downtrodden.
Now this latest legal sideshow has introduced yet another unusual issue to the case -- that is, whether Koch (pronounced Cook) has violated a gag order and whether that order violates his First Amendment right to free speech.
The free speech angle has attracted the interest of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a First Amendment watchdog organization which has jumped into the fray to defend Koch's right to talk to the press.
"It is definitely a free speech issue," said committee staff attorney Clemens P. Work. "This case is a compelling case for a lot of reasons. You have a man who is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican suing his club on behalf of some minority employes over wage violations.
Koch's original suit against Congressional came from a series of wage complaints brought by club employes who argued that the club was skimming some 20 percent from the top of every employe's pay check. That initial investigation evolved into a myriad of allegations against the club ranging from gambling to kickbacks in purchasing to paying bonuses to deceased employes. Many of those charges are still unsubstantiated and club lawyers have called other charges frivolous at best.
Koch was somewhat vindicated last month when the state's attorney general found that the club indeed had engaged in some irregular payroll practices. At the same time, however, the attorney general's office found no reason to prosecute Congressional.
The suit, brought in 1977, has since been bogged down in a mire of legal motions and countermotions that have escalated into what even judge Mitchell once termed "a paper war." The central issue is whether or not Koch's request to view various reams of club records would violate the privacy of the club members. Club members think that one argument in favor of the privacy issue is Koch's propensity for talking to reporters and holding press conferences.