By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 26, 2009
No sign explains the prim and proper red brick house on C Street SE.
Nothing hints at its secrets.
It blends into the streetscape, tucked behind the Library of Congress, a few steps from the Cannon House Office Building, a few more steps to the Capitol. This is just the way its residents want it to be. Almost invisible.
But through one week's events, this stately old pad -- a pile of sturdy brick that once housed a convent -- has become the very nexus of American scandal, a curious marker in the gallery of capital shame. Mark Sanford, South Carolina's disgraced Republican governor and a former congressman, looked here for answers -- for support, for the word of God -- as his marriage crumbled over his affair with an Argentine woman. John Ensign, the senator from Nevada who just seven days earlier also was forced to admit a career-shattering affair, lives there.
"C Street," Sanford said Wednesday during his diffuse, cryptic, utterly arresting confessional news conference, is where congressmen faced "hard questions."
On any given day, the rowhouse at 133 C St. SE -- well appointed, with American flag flying, white-and-green-trimmed windows and a pleasant garden -- fills with talk of power and the Lord. At least five congressmen live there, quietly renting upstairs rooms from an organization affiliated with "the Fellowship," the obsessively secretive Arlington spiritual group that organizes the National Day of Prayer breakfast, an event routinely attended by legions of top government officials. Other politicians come to the house for group spirituality sessions, prayer meetings or to simply share their troubles.
The house pulsed with backstage intrigue, in the days and months before the Sanford and Ensign scandals -- dubbed "two lightning strikes" by a high-ranking congressional source. First, at least one resident learned of both the Sanford and Ensign affairs and tried to talk each politician into ending his philandering, a source close to the congressman said. Then the house drama escalated. It was then that Doug Hampton, the husband of Ensign's mistress, endured an emotional meeting with Sen. Tom Coburn, who lives there, according to the source. The topic was forgiveness.
"He was trying to be a peacemaker," the source said of Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma.
Although Sanford visited the house, there is no indication that he was ever a resident; when he was in Congress from 1995 to 2000, the parsimonious lawmaker was famous for forgoing his housing allowance and bunking in his Capitol Hill office. But it is not uncommon for residents to invite fellow congressmen to the home for spiritual bonding. There, Sanford enjoyed a kind of alumnus status. Richard Carver, president of the Fellowship Foundation, said, "I don't think it's intended to have someone from South Carolina get counseling there." But he posited that Sanford turned to C Street "because he built a relationship with people who live in the house."
People familiar with the house say the downstairs is generally used for meals and prayer meetings. Volunteers help facilitate prayer meetings, they said. Residents include Reps. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) and Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), Ensign and Coburn. None of the congressmen agreed to be interviewed for this article. But associates of some of Ensign's housemates privately worried that the other residents would be tarred by the scandals.
"That two fell doesn't prove that the house -- which has seen many members of Congress pass through and engage in Bible studies -- doesn't mean that the house has failed," said conservative columnist Cal Thomas, who once spoke to a group of interns at the house. "If that was the standard, the whole Congress would be corrupt."
The house's residents mostly adhere to a code of silence about the place, seldom discussing it publicly, lending an aura of mystery to what happens inside and a hint of conspiratorial speculation. In a town where everyone talks about everything, the residents have managed largely to keep such a refuge to themselves and their friends. On a street mostly occupied by Hill staffers and professionals in their 20s and early 30s, some of the Democratic staffers nicknamed it "the Prayer House." On summer evenings, the congressmen would sometimes sit out front smoking cigars and chatting, but what went on inside stayed inside.
The house, which is assessed at $1.84 million, is registered to a little-known organization called Youth With a Mission of Washington DC. Carver, who said his Fellowship group is affiliated with the house, said that he has never heard of Youth With a Mission of Washington DC and that he did not have a phone number for it. Later, he said, he spoke with someone who "at one time was involved with the house" and had "heard secondhand" that the organization that runs the house is "subscribing to the no-comment."
"They've done a very good job of creating an atmosphere as separated as it can possibly be from the tensions of the city . . . a spiritual retreat from the cacophony and distraction of Capitol Hill," said the Rev. Rob Schenck, who has attended prayer meetings at the house. "But I've questioned in the past the highly secretive nature of it. The secretive nature of it has come off as a bit too clever. It places them at risk of suspicion about their motives. It hasn't served them well."
All of which made Sanford's nationally televised mention of "what we called C Street" the more enticing.
"It was a, believe it or not, a Christian Bible study," he said, departing from the tight-lipped ways of the house's denizens.
Schenck's group, Faith and Action, operates a less-shrouded Capitol Hill home used for Bible study -- but not as a residence for congressmen -- a haven he says was inspired by the house on C Street. He wonders whether the C Street house might have been too "accommodating" about the foibles, the sins, of its residents and friends. All in the name of attracting the famous and the powerful to its ministries.
"We're tempted," Schenck said, "to make room for their weaknesses."
Researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.