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Intrigue Grows Over C Street

Member Scandals Mount for Christian House Near Capitol

The well-kept brick home just blocks from the Capitol known simply as “C Street” has been a tranquil living space for a handful of Members and a sanctuary for Christian prayer and fellowship for many others over the years.

But news last week that yet another one-time tenant had an extramarital affair while serving in Congress has reignited the frenzy of intrigue about the house at 133 C St. SE, and sources close to it say the scandals have underscored the need to lift the veil of secrecy.

“If there isn’t a discussion at some point about how they do their ministry, there needs to be,” said a source close to C Street.

While some believe that Members familiar with C Street should publicly discuss the service missions, prayer groups and overall camaraderie that provide them with a haven of sorts, other sources interviewed for this article said that such a move might backfire.

So far, the recent news about the extramarital affairs of two of the current and one-time housemates — Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and former Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.) — has not shaken the resolve of the lawmakers who now reside there. Indeed, all five have steadfastly upheld their silence.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a C Street resident who reportedly counseled Ensign on how to handle his affair with a former staffer, has stayed mum about such conversations, citing constitutional protections for communications during religious counseling, as well as the doctor-patient confidentiality privilege. Coburn calls himself an “ordained deacon” and is an obstetrician.

“That is privileged communication that I will never reveal to anybody,” the Oklahoman said July 9 when asked about the Ensign affair.

Ensign has shunned the spotlight since revealing his affair with one-time campaign aide Cynthia Hampton on June 16. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), also a C Street resident, deflected questions for this story.

Pickering last week became the third prominent lawmaker in recent weeks with ties to the C Street complex to be accused of an extramarital affair. In Pickering’s case, his estranged wife, Leisha Pickering, filed a lawsuit against his alleged mistress, Elizabeth Creekmore-Byrd, charging her with alienation of affection.

The accusation of Pickering’s indiscretion comes just one month after Ensign’s scandal broke.

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) referenced the house during a June 24 press conference in which he admitted to an adulterous relationship with an Argentine woman. Sanford frequented the Christian prayer house while he was a House Member.

“The problem is when you begin to talk about it in this light at this time it’s a loser, because all anybody wants to talk about is what Sanford mentioned — that he went there — and Ensign lives there, and that’s so unfortunate,” said a source who has attended the morning prayer breakfasts affiliated with C Street.

“These men are good men. They made mistakes and they’re paying for it. And that’s what these ministries are about,” said former Rep. Tony Hall (D-Ohio), who regularly visits C Street.

“These are public figures [who] want privacy, and they’re trying to learn how to practice their faith,” he added. “To be in public life can be lonely sometimes, and they need to build relationships and grow. That’s what C Street is about.”

Supporters of the house assert that despite the unfavorable publicity, C Street remains a refuge for lawmakers of both parties and numerous Christian denominations. House rules include no smoking or drinking, and male-only residents fraternize in common areas bedecked with crosses and a stained-glass window. They share communal bathrooms in a setting similar to a college dormitory and are expected to live a “Christian life.”

In an unusually frank interview with the Tulsa World newspaper on July 13, former Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.) acknowledged participating in a “confrontation” with Ensign about his affair. Largent explained that members of the house have a “license for such confrontations if ‘there’s something going on that shouldn’t be going in someone’s life.’”

“Our feeling is that if anybody does that and does it willfully that we are asking them not to live at C Street anymore,” Largent told the Tulsa World.

C Street is affiliated with the International Foundation, which runs the widely attended annual National Prayer Breakfast on Capitol Hill, in addition to weekly nondenominational Bible study groups exclusively attended by House and Senate Members.

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) defended the house against allegations that it operates under a veil of secrecy. She said the weekly Bible study that’s affiliated with C Street remains “one of the best hours of the week.”

“We eat, we say a prayer and then somebody picks a Scripture to read,” she said, adding that the group of 25 to 40 or so lawmakers in attendance often features speakers who talk about their “personal journey.”

Former Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio), who sought support from C Street after her 9-year-old daughter died from cancer in 1999, noted that Coburn reached out to her and introduced her to the prayer group of six to 10 female Members who still meet every Wednesday morning for breakfast at the house.

“I was going through a time of great personal need, and I was embraced in a way that’s almost inexplicable,” she said.

The house also serves as a venue for business — Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), for example, hosts a quarterly lunch with African ambassadors at C Street to discuss foreign policy issues.

“It’s a great place,” Inhofe said.

Inhofe said he is undeterred by the negative news surrounding the affairs of the three Members with ties to the house and will continue hosting his lunches at C Street.

But as some Members stand by each other and the house amid growing questions, still others have lingering worries.

Asked one occasional guest of C Street: “The concept is fantastic, but if it has no credibility, what’s the reason for someone to live there?”

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