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."
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.
Mrs. Pickering refused to agree to the divorce. Two months ago, her husband changed the grounds of divorce to "fault." (Since a judge sealed the divorce proceedings, the specific fault claims aren't public.)
The next move came from Mrs. Pickering: In July, she filed an alienation of affections lawsuit against her husband's alleged mistress, Elizabeth Creekmore-Byrd, seeking unspecified damages for Creekmore-Byrd's alleged role in the dissolution of her marriage. (Six states have similar provisions for suing the other man or other woman in an affair.)
The lawsuit contained Mrs. Pickering's claims about her husband's affair with Creekmore-Byrd. He did not deny an alleged affair, but responded with a statement: "Leisha's complaint is a reaction to my filing on fault grounds. I still believe it is in the best interest of our five boys if our differences are resolved privately. . . . For that reason, I will not comment further." He offered no response to the adultery allegations. Neither did Creekmore-Byrd, who divorced her husband in 2007. WORLD's efforts to reach Creekmore-Byrd weren't successful.
Mrs. Pickering, though, is having a hard time making her case: A judge has so far barred her from using what may be crucial pieces of evidence-journals and documents kept by Mr. Pickering that his wife's lawsuit says provide evidence for her claims.
Mrs. Pickering's lawsuit against Creekmore-Byrd says the material contains a detailed record of her husband's daily activities over a 7-year period, and evidence for her allegations. The allegations include claims that during a Pickering family vacation in Colorado, Creekmore-Byrd rented a lodge to be near Mr. Pickering. The allegations also include accusations of wrongful conduct at the C Street house.
During a July 3 hearing, two weeks before Mrs. Pickering filed suit against Creekmore-Byrd, Judge Cynthia Lee Brewer ordered Mrs. Pickering's former attorney to return the journals to Mr. Pickering's lawyers, saying the material fell under attorney-client privilege, and indicating some documents were "improperly obtained during the course of her [Mrs. Pickerings'] behavior." A copy of the material was to remain under seal in the court system, according to a July 16 order.
But the judge went further: She ordered Mrs. Pickering to refrain from speaking to anyone about what she learned from the journals, including her attorney. Failure to comply could mean contempt of court.
According to at least two Jackson lawyers, that's a strange order. James Craig of Phelps Dunbar, LLP, and Matthew Eichelberger of the Hinds County public defender's office maintain a blog (Ispe Blogit) that comments on local cases of public importance. The two have followed the Pickering case closely.
From an office in downtown Jackson, Eichelberger said he'd never seen anything like the order for Mrs. Pickering not to discuss certain things with her lawyer: "I cannot think of a single instance where a client is prohibited from talking to his attorney." Craig agreed: "It's hard to think of a possible justification for that."
Mr. Pickering declined to comment for this story and referred questions to his lawyer, Richard Roberts III. A Jackson lawyer, he refused to answer questions about the overall allegations on the record but defended the judge's order: "Judge Brewer is a very cautious and experienced judge, and I think that she did what was right under the circumstances to protect the rights of both parties and the children."
Mrs. Pickering also declined requests for comment.
After Mrs. Pickering's last divorce attorney withdrew from her case, Craig said she may face another challenge: finding another lawyer willing to challenge the prominent Pickering family. "There could be a sense in which some lawyers would feel like they did not want to get on the bad side of the Pickerings," said Craig.
Creekmore-Byrd's family is prominent too: The Creekmores own Mississippi-based Cellular South, the nation's largest privately owned wireless communications company. While in Congress, Mr. Pickering served as vice chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which invited Cellular South president Victor Meena to speak in 2007. The former lawmaker now works for Capitol Resources, a Jackson-based lobbying firm that serves Cellular South as a client.
Craig and Eichelberger say the two families represent a potentially intimidating combination "without moving a muscle."
For now, Jackson attorneys Chuck McRae and Oliver Diaz represent Mrs. Pickering in her alienation of affections suit. The former Mississippi Supreme Court Justices are an interesting pick for Mrs. Pickering, says Craig, noting that both men have clashed with the Republican establishment in Mississippi.
Regarding Mrs. Pickering, potentially faced with difficult court battles, friends say the longtime Christian wife and mother simply wants her husband to come home.