WASHINGTON — When he is not at the Capitol, Sen. Larry E. Craig spends much of his time aboard the Suz II, the 42-foot yacht that serves as his Washington home. Further down D Dock at the Capital Yacht Club, his friend Senator Ted Stevens occasionally escapes the pressures of a federal investigation aboard his pleasure boat.
Former Representative Randy Cunningham, Republican of California, used to reside a few slips over on the Duke Stir before federal investigators built a bribery case against him. And at the Gangplank Marina next door, the disgraced congressmen Bob Ney, a Republican, and James A. Traficant Jr., a Democrat, both from Ohio, traded coveted slips for federal prison cells in bribery cases.
The travails of Mr. Craig, Republican of Idaho, who is seeking to withdraw his guilty plea to charges related to what the authorities say was a sex-solicitation incident at a Minneapolis airport restroom, are only the latest to rock this eclectic Washington neighborhood. Photographers gathered at D Dock on Wednesday to watch him leave for the Senate, carrying a boater’s bag.
One resident describes the strip of Potomac River waterfront as a “floating trailer park” where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Protected by locked gates and security, members of Congress rub elbows with lawyers and lobbyists, judges and bureaucrats, established government contractors and aspiring ones, and others lucky enough to own expensive boats and secure a coveted slip.
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“There’s no other place like it,” said Dutch von Ehrenfried, a former yacht club commodore who says a cabinet member, astronauts, and the musician Yanni have attended parties on his boat. “Why would all these big shots with their big boats be anywhere else?”
The Congressional scandals linked to slipholders do not always have to do with boats. But in recent years, some yacht club members and staff members have gotten caught up in the investigations of lawmakers. Three from the club, for example, were called before the federal grand jury investigating Mr. Cunningham’s ties to a military contractor who lent him the Duke Stir.
Now, neighbors tend not to discuss what they see and hear. “What people do on their boats, it’s like Vegas,” said Representative Gary L. Ackerman, Democrat of New York, who lives at the yacht club on his houseboat, the Unsinkable II, next to the impressive Shirley Lee, a restored yacht of Representative J. Randy Forbes, Republican of Virginia.
Members typically make public few details about their nautical lives, and Congressional rules require them to disclose boats as assets only if they produce income or are bought or sold.
Mr. Craig, who is known as exceptionally frugal, unwittingly called attention to the club when he gave the arresting officer in Minneapolis his club mail drop as a home address, 1000 Water Street SW. Mr. Craig, an outdoorsman who likes to fish and hunt, is a well-known figure at the marinas, where he has lived off and on during his Congressional career.
Ed Johnson, a resident of the Gangplank Marina who has long known Mr. Craig, describes the waterfront as a fancy trailer park. Neighbors float only a few arms-lengths away from one another. Most shower in bathhouses, and, after hours, gossip over drinks. Most parties erupt spontaneously. Others, like the bashes held aboard Malcolm Forbes’s visiting 133-foot yacht, feature White House, cabinet and Congressional notables. Live-aboards, as they call themselves, gawk from lawn chairs.
This tight world, though, potentially poses some ethical challenges. Mary Boyle, the communications director of the watchdog group Common Cause, said she saw a “red flag” when a Washington Post columnist recently reprinted a 2006 yacht club application from Mr. Stevens, Republican of Alaska, who owns the CW’s Way. (The boat is named for Charles Willis Snedden, a champion of Alaska statehood.)
Mr. Craig, who sits with Mr. Stevens on the Appropriations Committee, was listed as a reference. So was Elizabeth M. Conway, a yacht owner and former Craig staff member turned lobbyist. [Ms. Conway said Thursday in an e-mail message that at the time she vouched for Mr. Stevens, her firm no longer represented a client whose financing goes through the committee.]
While perfectly legal, the gesture by Ms. Conway for Mr. Stevens shows the “ultimate coziness” of a members-only marina, Ms. Boyle said. Mr. Stevens’s office declined to comment about Ms. Conway’s reference. In recent months, the F.B.I. has investigated his ties to an Alaska supporter who has pleaded guilty to bribing state lawmakers. None of this would be of any concern but for history. In the 1980s, a group of members living on boats came to be known as the Sea Caucus. Rent was cheap, and the location so convenient that, as Mr. Ackerman explained, one could get buzzed for a vote in the Capitol while aboard and be on the floor in a flash.
The group included Mr. Traficant, Mr. Cunningham, Mr. Craig, Mr. Ackerman and Representatives Sonny Callahan of Alabama, and Gene Taylor of Mississippi. Mr. Callahan, a Republican, retired in 2002 and opened a lobbying firm. Mr. Taylor, a Democrat, no longer lives on a boat, his office says.
Mr. Callahan owned the custom-built Kelly C with an open salon for entertaining. Berthed at the Gangplank, it became an after-hours gathering spot for people who work on the Hill.
“Danny Rostenkowski would bring steaks from Chicago, or I’d bring seafood from Alabama or someone else would bring Memphis barbecue,” Mr. Callahan recalled, referring to the former Illinois congressman who pleaded guilty to mail fraud in 1996. Lobbyists were frequent guests.
Mr. Callahan sold the Kelly C to Mr. Cunningham. A Navy fighter pilot who said he inspired the movie “Top Gun,” Mr. Cunningham moved it to the yacht club. His boating woes began when he sold the Kelly C and borrowed the Duke Stir, which was owned by a military contractor. Mr. Cunningham lived aboard, where he often held hot-tub parties.
F.B.I. agents focused on the yacht club after uncovering evidence that Mr. Cunningham took $2 million in bribes, some of which he apparently used for club fees and boat repairs.
Then there was the Traficant debacle. Mr. Traficant lived at the Gangplank, but his boat was falling apart. His tax problems led to a federal investigation. Among his offenses was using Congressional staff members to scrape barnacles off his boat, an activity he described as a male-bonding experience.
Mr. Craig lived aboard the Ida Ho, a houseboat, during his early years in Congress. He sold it and moved to the Virginia suburbs with his wife, Suzanne, to raise their children, but the water eventually drew him back. His current vessel is the Suz II.
Mr. Ney bought his houseboat in 1999 from a health care lobbyist. He sold it after pleading guilty last year to charges related to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and is now in prison.
Mr. Ackerman has seen it all from the yacht club’s B Dock. He thinks of his houseboat as the “cheapest house in the nicest neighborhood.” It threatens to deflate neighborhood values with its unkempt patio and plastic lawn furniture.
He bought the boat after his first one, the Unsinkable, sank. That cost Mr. Ackerman $15,000 but did not quell his enthusiasm for part-time lodging on the water, which costs $500 a month.
Mr. Ackerman recently asked a boat surveyor to take his boat out for its annual test of seaworthiness, a club requirement. The boat made its way into the channel, where one anchored vessel bore the name Miss D’Meanor.
The boat also passed Mr. Craig’s slip, now carefully watched as Mr. Craig tries to keep his Senate seat. If he leaves town and sells his boat, the spot may become available.