WASHINGTON — When he is not at the Capitol, Sen. Larry 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 Sen. Ted Stevens occasionally escapes the pressures of a federal investigation aboard his pleasure boat.
Former Rep. Randy Cunningham, R-Calif., used to reside a few slips over on the Duke Stir before federal investigators built a bribery case against him. At the Gangplank Marina next door, the Ohio congressmen Bob Ney, a Republican, and James A. Traficant Jr. traded coveted slips for federal prison cells in bribery cases.
The travails of Craig, 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.
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 mix with lawyers, lobbyists, judges, bureaucrats, established and aspiring government contractors and others lucky enough to live there.
"There's no other place like it. Why would all these big shots with their big boats be anywhere else?" said Dutch von Ehrenfried, a former yacht club commodore who says a Cabinet member, NASA astronauts, and the musician Yanni have attended parties on his boat.
The congressional scandals linked to slipholders do not always have to do with boats. But in recent years, some yacht club members and staff have gotten caught up in the investigations of lawmakers. Three from the club, for example, went before the federal grand jury investigating Cunningham's relationship with a defense contractor who lent him the Duke Stir.
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.
Craig, 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. Craig is a well-known figure at the marinas, where he has lived off and on during his 27-year career.
Ed Johnson, a resident of the Gangplank Marina who has long known Craig, describes the waterfront as a fancy trailer park. Neighbors float only a few arms-lengths away from each other. Most shower in bathhouses and, after hours, gossip over drinks. Some parties erupt spontaneously. Others, like the bashes thrown aboard Malcolm Forbes' 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 Stevens, R-Alaska, who owns the CW's Way.
Craig, who sits with Stevens on the Senate Appropriations Committee, was listed as a reference. So was Elizabeth M. Conway, a yacht owner and former Craig staff member turned lobbyist. Conway said in an e-mail message that at the time she vouched for Stevens, her firm no longer represented a client whose financing goes through the Appropriation Committee.
While perfectly legal, the gesture by Conway for Stevens shows the "ultimate coziness" of a members-only marina, Boyle said. Stevens' office declined to comment about Conway's reference.
In recent months, the FBI has investigated Stevens' relationship with an Alaska supporter who has pleaded guilty to bribing state lawmakers. In the 1980s, a group of members living on boats came to be known as the "Sea Caucus."
The group included Traficant, Cunningham, Craig, Ackerman and Reps. Sonny Callahan of Alabama, and Gene Taylor of Mississippi. Callahan, a Republican, retired in 2002 and opened a lobbying firm. Taylor, a Democrat, no longer lives on a boat, his office says.
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. It was built in 1977 by Bertram Yacht and has a gas-screw engine. The boat was called Nauti Haven when the Craigs bought it in 2003 and took out a $100,000 mortgage.
Dan Popkey of the Idaho Statesman contributed to this report.