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Alienation of affection

Cover story sidebar | A divorce-related lawsuit alleges former lawmaker Chip Pickering carried on an affair while living at the Fellowship's C Street house

Issue: "The ABCs of C Street," Aug. 29, 2009

JACKSON, Miss.-The 79-year-old Hinds County Courthouse in Jackson, Miss., sits nearly 1,000 miles away from the C Street house in Washington, D.C. But a startling connection narrows the distance: In a lawsuit filed in the Jackson courthouse last month, Leisha Pickering says her husband, former Republican congressman Charles "Chip" Pickering, carried on an affair while living at C Street, a Christian boarding house for male lawmakers who say they're seeking accountability while away from home (see "All in the family").

Mrs. Pickering's 14-page lawsuit against her husband's alleged mistress goes further: The wife and mother of Mr. Pickering's five sons, ages 10-19, says some of the "wrongful conduct" occurred in "Washington, D.C., at the C Street Complex."

The revelation came swiftly on the heels of two other C Street scandals: Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., and Republican South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford confessed to adulterous affairs one week apart. Ensign lives at C Street, and Sanford said he participated in the group's meetings while he served in Congress and "then again before the affair came to light."

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Ensign says he's reconciled to his wife. Sanford's marriage is less certain: After the governor publicly called his adulterous relationship with his Argentine mistress "a love story," his wife, Jenny Sanford, said she still wanted to reconcile, but she wanted to see true repentance first. In early August, she moved out of the governor's mansion with the couple's four sons. The Sanfords said the move was part of working through their struggles.

Former Rep. Pickering says far less: He doesn't publicly confirm or deny an affair, despite his wife's detailed allegations. Lawmakers living in the C Street house won't comment on Pickering, Ensign, or Sanford. Even in Mississippi, people close to the Pickerings will say little about the scandal, suggesting the pressures of a close-knit society marked by societal, political, and financial connections spanning generations.

While Mr. Pickering maintains his marriage is "irreparably damaged," Mrs. Pickering's closest friend, Teresa Crivello, has a different view: "Leisha's in divorce proceedings right now, but with the desire that there be repentance and reconciliation."

Crivello grew up with Mrs. Pickering in Memphis and served as maid of honor in the Pickerings' 1988 wedding. From her home in Memphis, she says the Pickerings' breakup and the C Street scandals raise significant questions, including the wisdom of married couples living apart for long periods of time. She says it also raises questions about C Street's system of accountability, and she says the men should be accountable to God and to their wives first.

Mostly, Crivello is concerned about her friend: She says Mrs. Pickering is going through "a heart-wrenching" time, but "feels like a lot of flesh is being put on the bones of her theology." And while Crivello prays for the restoration of the Pickerings' marriage, she knows the days ahead will be hard. "As a woman I'm concerned for another mother with five children who's about to be a single parent," she says. "It's going to be difficult."

For Mrs. Pickering, who organized relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina and attends Broadmoor Baptist Church, facing divorce means facing public scrutiny as well.

When Mr. Pickering ran for Congress in 1996, few were surprised. The Mississippi native and Ole Miss graduate hailed from a prominent family of public figures: His father, Charles Pickering Sr., also a Mississippi native and Ole Miss grad, once served as president of the Mississippi Baptist Convention. He was also a widely known judge, eventually nominated for the federal bench by President George W. Bush. (Supporters say the senior Pickering's staunch conservatism doomed his bid, and he withdrew from consideration.)

The younger Pickering ran on a platform of conservatism as well, maintaining a pro-life, pro-family voting record, including campaigns against indecency on television and the internet.

Like Sanford and Ensign, Pickering openly criticized President Bill Clinton when his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky became public: "I think for the good of the country and for the good of his own family, it would be better for President Clinton to resign. When someone puts himself forward for public office, then his personal conduct does become relevant."

Mr. Pickering retired from public office before his wife's allegations about his personal conduct became public. After nearly 12 years in Congress, the Mississippi lawmaker announced in 2007 that he would not seek reelection at the end of 2008, saying he wanted to spend more time with his sons. By mid-2008 he had filed for divorce from his wife, citing irreconcilable differences.

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