A Montgomery County judge threw out yesterday a complex and long-running lawsuit filed against the prestigious Congressional Country Club by one of its members who contended that the club improperly withheld part of its employes' wages.
Circuit Court Judge John J. Mitchell said he agreed with the club's argument that the maverick member, George Koch, forfeited his right as a stockholder in the club to inspect its books when it became clear that Koch's only motive was to embarrass and harass the club.
Koch said he will appeal the ruling.
Central to the judge's decision was Koch's habit of contacting journalists to inform them of the progress of his case. Those press contacts, Mitchell said, raised "an inborn inquiry as to the interest and purpose of one who seeks to further his cause through widespread dissemination of his case to the media."
The judge said he would not hold Koch in contempt of court for talking to the press, as club attorney James Thompson had requested, but that he would agree that by holding frequent press conferences, Koch was playing out a "vendetta" against the club.
Questioning why Koch should make inflammatory charges in the press instead of the courtroom, Mitchell said: "Benjamin Franklin has been credited with the admonition that a reader of a newspaper should believe only the advertising. In this regard, reference should also be made to the unfortunate report, and subsequent repudiation thereof, of a story published in a metropolitan newspaper concerning an infant who was reported to be addicted to narcotics."
That was a reference to a story in The Washington Post last year about a supposed 8-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy. After the story won a Pulitzer Prize last spring, its author acknowledged that it was a fabrication, and the prize was returned.
Mitchell also said the club's books -- through which Koch contended he could demonstrate wrongdoing -- had already been inspected by the Maryland attorney general's office and Koch had access to a report of the conclusions drawn from the inspection.
That report found that Congressional indeed had withheld a fixed percentage of all of its employes' paychecks since 1948, but that the statute of limitations had expired and the state could not prosecute. A later internal memo from an assistant attorney general concluded that "there has been no evidence which has come forward, not even a scintilla thereof, which indicates that the club was skimming wages and kicking them back or funneling them to management or using them for any other nefarious purposes."
Some employes contended that they were improperly deprived of part of the 15 percent service charge assessed for food and drink at the club, but the club argued it had told its food service workers they would get only 80 percent of those charges so the rest could be distributed to the other employes.
Koch maintained during a four-year crusade against his club, which is on River Road in Potomac, that it had engaged in various improper activities in addition to the alleged wage skimming. Judge Mitchell noted that he had repeatedly charged that there was illegal gambling at the club and pointed out that the attorney general's report found that charge without merit. Mitchell also cited Koch's well-known but unsubstantiated charge that Congressional has more convicted felons as members than any other country club in the nation.
Koch yesterday accused the judge of making a "diatribe against the press" that misses the point of the case. He said in a statement that Mitchell has chosen to ignore . . . evidence of wage skimming in his ruling. His primary concern, it seems, is directed at attacking press coverage."
Thompson, the club's attorney, said, "I'm pleased that the case has been resolved. I hope this would now lay the matter to rest."