In May 1976, Rick Harris and Robert Rubenstein, 20-year-old sophomores at the University of Maryland, were hired as summer waiters at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda. Best friends since childhood, the prelaw students didn't fit the mold of the typical dining room employee at the club. They came from upscale Maryland suburbs. Rubenstein drove a red 1966 Mustang convertible, and Harris had a red Triumph TR6. Their mostly middle-aged African-American and Hispanic coworkers took the T-1 bus from working-class neighborhoods in Washington into the rich white enclaves of Montgomery County, where they might get dropped near Congressional or Burning Tree Club or Bethesda Country Club.
Harris and Rubenstein were to be paid $6.66 a shift plus 15% of the food checks and 10% of the bar tabs of the members they served. For a banquet they received $20 and tips. But Rubenstein was stunned when he got his first check in early June.
"I never will forget," he says. "The general manager looked over my check and said, 'You can't make that kind of money!' He kept the check and brought it back three hours later, with a new figure that was way off."
Over the years Congressional employees had raised questions about their paychecks, but as mostly poor, unskilled laborers they had little if any recourse. Enter Harris and Rubenstein. They got access to their time cards and found that the club, unbeknownst to the employees, had been deducting 20% of the waiters' pay for what was called a "breakage fund."
The two college students found an unlikely ally and advocate: George W. Koch (pronounced Cook), a prominent 50-year-old Congressional member and Washington lobbyist. Among other things, Koch uncovered the full extent of a wage-skimming scheme that dated to 1948 and had resulted in about $1 million in lost pay. In February 1977, after conducting interviews with hundreds of employees and haggling with the club over its accounting, Koch, an unabashed Reagan Republican, filed suit for access to Congressional's books. This would be the beginning of Koch's nasty five-year paper war with his own club.
Koch joined Congressional in 1961. For 24 years he was one of the most influential lobbyists on Washington's K Street as the head of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, for whom he represented the food and beverage industry on Capitol Hill. Robert Koch, one of his six children and a prominent wine lobbyist, is married to Doro Bush, daughter and sister, respectively, of Presidents George Herbert Walker Bush and George W. Bush. Yet George Koch was praised by leaders from both sides of the aisle for his stand against one of the most blue-blooded and powerful clubs in the country.
In 1977, Congressional paid 53 employees almost $5,000 in withheld overtime pay. In '78 Harris and Rubenstein filed their own suit against the club and settled for $3,770.
Today, Harris and Rubenstein live as neighbors at TPC Potomac in Avenel Farm, a 20-minute walk from Congressional. Koch says he has no regrets about forcing the club to change its practices. "The book is closed, and the employees aren't being cheated," he says. Now 85, he's still a Congressional member.