Sometimes at night, from out on the oak-lined fairways and crewcut greens stretching below, the clubhouse of the Congressional Country Club looms like a great ocean liner adrift in the rich darkness of Potomac estates.
Lights blaze from the windows in the white stucco facade. Vaulting archways and castellated lines hint of Spanish architecture. From grand and courtly rooms come the voices of an anointed elite and their guests, savoring the pleasures of wealth, power and prestige.
Into this insular world now charges George W. Koch, a member of the club and a man no different in most respects from his compatriots in the upper middle class, except that he cradles the lance of a quixotic obsession and leads a ragtag band of Hispanics, blacks and college students in what has become his own epic crusade.
For this 53-year-old father of six, homeowner in a fashionable Potomac neighborhood, ardent backer of Ronald Reagan, and president of the Grocery Manufacturers of American, such a mission seems unlikely.
But Koch is a man with an uncommon resolve.
It gripped him three years ago when a middle-aged black waitress complained to him that his country club was shorting her pay. From that moment on, in his single-minded efforts to right what he saw as an injustice, Koch has interviewed more than 100 club waitresses, dishwashers, security guards and housekeepers and he has sifted through more than 40,000 documents, many plucked from the trash by employes eager to help him piece together a picture of what had been going on at the club.
His concern made him feel a little paranoid. To this day he keeps his files scattered in several places. There were social rebuffs when members would not shake his hand, and some threats against his job. But he would not be deterred. He testified on behalf of a waitress before a District unemployment compensation board. He sat for seven days of cross-examination as his deposition welled to 1,385 pages. And he kept paying the legal bills, now upwards of $100,000, for the suit to be filed against the club in Montgomery Country Circuit Court three years ago.
"I can't save the world," Koch said recently. "But I have to carry out my responsibility where I have it. I will not stop until I have rectified what has been done wrong."
The burden Koch shouldered grew from an isolated complaint to his conclusion that Congressional had by as many as 15 different schemes defrauded hundreds of employes out of more than $1 million in wages since 1948. Chief among the skimming operations, Koch claimed, was an off-the-top deduction of 20 percent from every employe's paycheck, something the club termed simply "standard restaurant practice," although other restaurants in the area have no such deduction.
Koch's pursuit of wage complaints led him deeper into a netherworld of questionable club activities, including gambling, accounting, irregularities and kickbacks in purchasing. He demanded to see the club's books.
Not only did the club's governing board deny the allegations, members conducted their own investigation and found the charges "without substance." Moreover, they argued that Koch (pronounced Cook) had no right to go through records that might breach the privacy of other club members. They told Koch, in so many words, to get lost.
Then two months ago, after receiving complaints from employes, the Maryland state attorney general's office decided to look into possible wage violations at the club that Koch had first alleged three years earlier. State investigators obtained a court order permitting them to inspect club records that have been sequestered since August 1977 when Koch and Congressional began struggling in court over Koch's right to see the records of his club.
Because he broke with the ranks of his own class to become their champion, George Koch has inspired a sense of awe and devotion among the workers.
"He's become a cult figure," said one former employe at the club. "It's the first time anyone has ever stood up and said, 'Hey this is wrong. How can they do this?' Judging from the people I've talked to, most employes thought he was some sort of cross between Don Quixote and the Second Coming."
What baffles his adversaries at the club the most is Koch's motivation. In the early going of his deposition last fall, the club's attorney asked if Koch had any history of mental disorder that might shed some light on his reasons for pursuing a matter in which he obviously had nothing to gain.
Congressional board member Ralph Guglielmi said of Koch: "People can conjure up attitudes and ideas that aren't too well founded at times."
"In Washington, that's the only thing some types of minds would conceive of," said California Democratic congressman Lionel Van Perlin, a longtime acquaintance of Koch. "Anybody who bucks the establishment and is part of it has got to be off his rocker. He discovered something that sickened him. He didn't get the answers, so he started to look into it and he didn't let go. There are darned few people who are part of the establishment that would take it on to protect small people who could not do anything for them in return."
Some friends worry that so much of Koch's life has gone into his obsession that he might be "off the deep end." Others lament the disillusioning of a man they portray as "a very moral person with almost a corny belief in the simple verities."
"It's become a preoccupation," said one. "It's disillusioned him. It's taught him that people can deal underhandedly and hypocritically in a little piece of paradise."
As the parties marked the third anniversary of their civil contest in February, the Board of Governors of the club had spent $125,000 to keep George Koch from breaching the privacy of club records.
"It's just the time it takes to get the process of litigation to bring the case to a determination," said former club president Richard G. Kline.
"Everytime I get discouraged," Koch observed a few weeks ago, "I just list some of the things that have been done to employes. Everytime I thought, was this worth the blood and sweat, there was another illegal act going on at a place I owned a piece of. It was very easy to become dedicated." The Call
Each morning the T-1 bus heads out of the District for the shady Maryland suburbs. It lumbers past lordly homes and winding driveways until it swings in at 8500 River Road past the iron gates and guard house of the Congressional Country Club.
The doors fold back and out comes a morning shift of dishwashers and housekeepers, mostly black and Hispanic, ready to begin their work day at what has been the palatial 300-acre haven of corporate heads, judges, lawyers, doctors, congressmen and presidents from Calvin Coolidge to Gerald Ford.
In the summer, when the rough thickens along Congressional's fairways and the tall oaks tower in full leaf, the club's year-round staff of about 75 grows to more than 200 waiters, busboys, housekeepers, locker room attendants and lifeguards.
It was one such summer day, a Saturday in July five years ago, that a middle-aged black waitress named Juanita Chavis called George Koch, a portly gray-haired man with whom she had scarcely a passing acquaintance, even though he had been a member of Congressional since 1961.
Koch was at home in his sprawling brick house in Potomac where he liked to spend summer weekends by the poplar-shaded swimming pool with Helen, his wife of 30 years, and his six children.
Chavis said she was calling because she had been fired without a hearing. She had worked at the club for 24 years, sometimes staying late on evenings, sleeping in a chair in the club rather than returning home to Silver Spring so she could be up early to wait on breakfast parties.
Koch, who to this day had no idea why Chavis turned to him for help, listened patiently as she poured out a startling story: For nearly as long as she'd worked at the club, Chavis said, she had been paid less than she was owed, Koch said he would see what he could do, and advised her to write her grievances down and present them to the club's 16-member board.
And so it began.
Several attempts to secure Chavis a hearing proved fruitless, provoking only a warning to Koch "to keep his nose out of personnel matters." The threat he perceived in that advice crystallized his sense of indignation.
"It never occurred to me there was dishonesty at that point," he said. "But I don't like people being mistreated. I couldn't believe they would treat a human being that way."
Chavis was finally rehired three months later, and some of her back pay reimbursed. Koch's efforts in her behalf later prompted her to write him that he "was the kind of person that Christ taught his followers to be. Jesus said help the poor and see that justice be given to them. This is all you have tried to do for me and I do appreciate it."
The next summer, Congressional was bathed in the limelight of the 58th PGA championship, which the club had been chosen to host. Among the influx of new employes hired to handle the bicentennial crowds turning out for one of the top four events in professional golf were two University of Maryland students, Richard Harris and Robert Rubenstein.
The two sophomores had gotten summer jobs as waiters, and unlike many of their coworkers, they had sharp eyes for figures. After working five weeks, they concluded that their paychecks had been shorted for three pay periods. By their calculations, they'd been paid about $200 less than they deserved.
They were angry. They told the other employes what was happening to their paychecks. Rubenstein testified in a deposition, "because some employes there are poor people [who] are so scared of Congressional Country Club, of losing their jobs. Every week the club would rip them off blind and I mean blind."
For their complaints, Harris and Rubenstein got fired. Juanita Chavez told them to get in touch with George Koch.
After listening to their story, Koch wrote the club's manager, Joachim Saal, demanding that the two sophomores be given a hearing to consider reinstatement and reimbursement of back pay since the time they had been fired. r
"As a member," Koch wrote on July 23, 1976, "I have only two objectives in becoming involved: seeing that the employes at Congressional are treated farily and judiciously . . ." His motives, he said, were to prevent the federal or state governments from investigating the club for wage practice violations, and to prevent any union from getting a foothold at the club.
"Bad management," said Koch, breeds unions."
Saal turned the letter over to the board. In the ensuing months Koch appeared before the executive committee, demanding a hearing for the two former employes and the right to exercise his prerogative as a member to inspect the club's wage records.
He got nowhere. "I though it was a communications problem," he remembered.
"I couldn't believe morally, ethically, or socially these people would steal from little people. Stealing becomes more despicable when you steal from people who are working for you."
Six months later, Koch felt he had exhausted all informal channels available to him. He called his family together and discussed the implications of when he proposed to do next. "As a family we talked about what going to court would mean. We knew the children wouldn't get lifeguard jobs at the club in the summer."
On Feb. 16, 1977, the self-avowed, right-wing conservative filed suit for access to Congressional's records in Montgomery Circuit Court. The date remains an indelible memory.
"It was embarrassing," he said. "Nobody sues their country club." The Lion's Den
Of the 21 country clubs in Montgomery County, few are enveloped in quite the same aura as Congressional. With its $6,500 initiation fee, and $1,140 yearly dues, Congressional is close to the top of the priciest clubs in the affluent suburb, but no other place can boast quite the same tradition of powerful businessmen and politicians. By reputation the club Calvin Coolidge inaugurated in 1924 has come to signify a place where the powerful congregate to craft real estate deals, business mergers and other deeds befitting the monied class.
It was at Congressional, for instance, that the cream of the county's real estate trade met for dinner in 1974 at the invitation of club member John P. Foley. As a result of table talk that night, six real estate firms were later convicted of conspiracy to fix commission rates and fined $160,000.
Congressional was the scene of a national reported story last year when a member bludgeoned a goose to death on the 17th green and was suspended for 90 days. (The board, according to one of the man's attorneys, "discovered morality and ecology at the same time and they couldn't handle it.")
But another member, after smashing a 40-year employe in the back with an eight-iron was punished simply by being limited to two drinks at the bar. (Former club president Ben Brundred described the incident as a "purely unintentional accident." The member was "greeting his oldest friend, tapped him on the back with the club and hit him in a sensitive place.Brundred said.)
There are still no black members at the club despite an agreement with the Maryland attorney general to end discriminatory admission practices, a quid pro quo in which the club got to keep a preferential tax assessment that saves it almost $100,000 a year in property taxes.
Those who have been able to find the requisite two sponsors and gain admission have few complaints "It's a pretty fine club," said former president Kline. "we've got a fine membership which typifies the people who live in the area and is representative of the people we all like to know."
There was one member, however, who some of the board leaders and club loyalists wished they'd never heard of.
George Koch walked into his personal lion's den two days after he'd filed the lawsuit in February 1977. He brought his wife and his kids and they sat down in the club's Mixed Grill, where women are allowed. The evening was something of an ordeal. He was introduced to a member who refused to shake his hand. The maitre d' glared at his family. A member of the board walked over to his table, thrust his finger at Koch's chest and abusively muttered. Koch's children thought the man had pushed their father.
"I wanted to teach my children a lesson," Koch said. "I wanted to teach them that you must never be driven from your home, your church or your country club because of harrassment."
News of the suit buzzed among Congressional's employes in the days immediately after Koch took the club to court.
"The atmosphere was tense," one employe remembered. "People thought something was going to get done."
It was only three days after Koch had filed when severl employes noticed something that they thought was remarkable in light of the legal action that had been initiated.
Workers had been sent over to the 6-foot by 20-foot room in the soil barn called the Archives where the club stored records, receipts, paycheck stubs and an assortment of other documents. Boxes of material were ferried over to the club in Congressional's old white station wagon. Several employes were startled to find cardboard boxes and brown plastic trash bags of the stuff sitting on the loading dock waiting to be picked up by the garbageman.
"If the club had nothing to hide, why was this stuff being trashed," wondered one employe. "It was too coincidental, all this new kind of trash appearing right after the suit."
That evening, with the help of a colleague, the employe backed his car up to the loading dock, looked over his shoulder, and threw the bundles and boxes into this trunk. The pair slipped down the long hedge-lined, bump-ribbed entrance to the club, through the iron gates and then sped off down River Road, three miles, to the Potomac home of Koch.
No one was there. They left the haul on the back porch and vanished.
It was the first of many trips.
"We went back and forth to his house with oral information or documents," one employe remembered. "You're talking about a lot of trips."
Meanwhile, Koch began to receive more documents in the mail, supplied by anonymous employes. The club management ordered the security guards to notify them whenever Koch come onto the grounds of the country club. Employes who were seen chatting with Koch were called into the manager's office and questioned on the substance of the conversation.
Engulfed with new reports from 35 witnessess, including 10 who prepared affadavits, Koch sought a wider spectrum of records in an expanded lawsuit that alleged irregularities in the PGA accounts, Christmas fund payments, auditing reports, purchasing practices and gambling in exclusive Men's Grill. a
Those charges have never been substantiated, but when Koch's charges surfaced that manager Saal had used club employes to clean his new Potomac house and repair a fence in his yard the club's bylaws were amended to forbid the practice.
That summer the employe manual was amended to forbid employes to discuss grievances with members.Later, the board batted around another change in the bylaws -- to suspend any member who brings a suit against the club -- but the proposal was never adopted.
The summer of 1977 was also the last time the club allowed Koch to throw his annual Grocery Manufacturers of America party, which each year drew more than 50 congressmen, senators and their families. The gala that started in the afternoon and stretched through dinner was especially popular for politicians with families because Koch hired clowns and had pony rides and other fun things for kids to do. Older guests with more sophisticated interests could swim, play tennis, and listen to comedian Mark Russell. In April 1978, Koch got a letter from the board telling him he could no longer use the club for the affair because some golf carts had been damaged by children. The Crusade
As the summer of 1977 tipped toward autumn, Koch spent less of his free time working in his yard and playing checkers with his kids and more of it absorbed in his crusade to restore what he called "standard business practices" to the management of Congressional.
Working an average of 20 hours a week, he invented an elaborate index system of tabs and cross-references to keep track of the mounting evidence, but the material grew so voluminous his system collapsed. The pool table in the family's rec room was overwhelmed with paper.
"We didn't play pool for two years," said Koch's son Greg.
In August 1977, at the order of Montgomery Circuit Court Judge John Mitchell, who had been assigned to the Koch-Congressional case, the club's books and records were seized by the county sheriff and sequestered in the courthouse.
In November, the two University of Maryland students, Harris and Rubenstein, filed a second suit against the club in an effort to recover back wages. At issue was no more than $200 or $300, but the club fought the ex-waiters for more than two years before finally settling out of court for a sum reportedly around $2,000 each.
"Every single step they could, they filed an objection," said an attorney familiar with the case. "They made incredible arguments against producing documents."
"We didn't do anything wrong, and we wanted it adjudicated," explained former president Brundred. "You do have to stand on principles sometimes."
With Koch's charges floating unanswered in the public domain, the Board of Governors decided to conduct their own investigation of the allegations.
In December, the board published a 14-page statement compiled by various board members and auditors from Lee, Hendricks and Co. The report satisfied the board that Koch's charges were "not of real substance," Brundred said.
Since that time the case has dragged on through the court as lawyers for each side filed every sort of motion possible, hoping their respective clients could outlast each other in a war of attrition.
Koch's spirits sagged badly in 1978 when it seemed the case was hopelessly mired.He was hospitalized in late fall with a pulmonary embolism. He says it had nothing to do with his lawsuit, but a friend joked with him that he's seen some of the board members "over at Mother of Mercy church, lighting candles, hoping you'd die."
He didn't. When he recovered, he took a day off to testify at a hearing for a 14-year club employe whose workman's compensation had been contested by the club.
For the housekeepers and potato peelers, bent to their quotidian labors while plaintiffs and defendats struggle on a different plane, things have gotten better at the club. A dental plan was started. Employes turned down a union, with, to be sure, a little prompting from the club, which said in the president's newsletter: "It is unlikely that a union would be of any benefit to either the membership or Club employes."
"I think our employes are some of the most satisfied of any group at country clubs," said Brundred. "We don't have a club unless we have happy employes."
Even Koch concedes that the work atmostphere is better. Some of his goals have been attained. The 20 percent deduction that the club took from the checks of workers as "standard restuarant practice" has been stopped. There is a new employe manual. The management is taking more care in informing the membership about club activities.
"But I'm not about to say boys will be boys," Koch said. "those people have been waiting on me since 1961. I have a responsibility to do those things which the board has refused to assume. If you don't, you have a cancer that will fester and corrupt society."
A friend of Koch's who watched the tenacious lobbyist grow increasingly obsessed over the last three years speculated that what George Koch found and was horrified by were the traditional practices at all country clubs. f
"What George Koch stepped into is probably absolutely traditional at all these country clubs. The only reason it's coming out at Congressional is that Congressional is unfortunate enough to have George Koch as a member."