Ethics Complaint Leveled at Right-Wing Congressional Members of Shadowy Christian Group

News & Politics

This story has been updated since its original publication.

A group of congressmen and senators living in a posh townhouse on Capitol Hill may now have to answer to the ethics committees in their respective chambers, thanks to letters of complaint filed by the watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. At issue is the modest rent paid by the conservative male lawmakers -- who hail from both political parties -- to live in the house owned by The Family, the shadowy, right-wing religious group that sponsors the National Prayer Breakfast and shores up the work of dictators throughout the developing world. (See AlterNet's interview with Jeff Sharlet, the journalist who first uncovered the work of The Family, which is also known as The Fellowship.)

Named in the complaint to the Senate committee (PDF) are Senators Tom Coburn, R-Okla.; John Ensign, R-Nev.; Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and Sam Brownback, R-Kans. CREW's letter to the House committee (PDF) names as recipients of a probable "gift" of a rent subsidy Representatives Bart Stupak, D-Ohio; Zach Wamp, R-Tenn.; Mike Doyle, D-Penn., and Heath Shuler, D-N.C. (Coburn, Ensign and DeMint are among the group of Family members AlterNet investigated when examining Republican opposition to health-care reform.)

CREW alleges that the lawmakers pay below-market rent for their rooms in the restored 19th-century property, receiving lodging and housekeeping for $950 month in a neighborhood where a one-room efficiency apartment can go for as much as $1,700. Essentially, the CREW complaints say that the rents are being subsidized by the entity that owns the house, and that subsidy, according to ethics rules, amounts to the sort of "gift" that is banned under ethics rules, according to CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan.

"Rarely does someone – particularly a member of Congress – receive something for nothing," Sloan said in a statement, "so you can't help but wonder exactly what these members may be doing in return for all of this largess. Of course, this is the reason the gift ban was enacted in the first place. This situation cries out for an immediate ethics inquiry."

In a related story, ClergyVOICE, a group of Protestant religious leaders called on the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the tax implications of accepting a subsidized rent. Earlier this year, the C Street house had its tax-exempt status revoked: its owners had claimed the house to be a church, and thereby exempt from paying property taxes.

AlterNet was unable to reach the congressmen named, finding their offices closed for Good Friday, Stupak and Doyle told the AP that they no longer live in the house, and they believed the rent to be fairly assessed. UPDATE: On Tuesday, April 6, Rep. Doyle sent AlterNet the following statement in response to our inquiry: "While I no longer live at C Street, I never received any subsidized rent there. My living arrangements then and now have always complied with House rules and regulations."

But how does this compare to a group of people renting a Capitol Hill house and divvying up the rent? Surely, if you found a house for, say, $5,000 per month, and divided it between five people, you might come up with a comparable rent.

"Yeah, but usually they're not $1.8 million houses," Sloan said when reached by AlterNet in her Washington, D.C., office."While I'm sure there are a lot of people sharing group houses that are a lot less expensive, they're not that level of house. And as I understand it, it's quite a nice house, too. It's not exactly falling apart."

Indeed, I can attest to the fact that the house is rather nicely appointed, with handsome furnishing and a crystal chandelier in its front room, which is visible from the street.

"And other group houses don't come with housekeeping services, including sheets and towels," Sloan said.

Sen. Coburn, through his spokesperson, disputed that he receives housekeeping services at C Street, according to the Associated Press. Neither housekeeping or meals are included in his $950 monthly rent, an unnamed spokesperson told the AP.

"He's doing his own laundry? He's doing his own towels? Well, I'm surprised," Sloan said. "But I don't think other people have disputed that."

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