Is Living in the C Street House An Ethics Violation?

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Regular Mother Jones readers will recall the story of “the Fellowship,” or “the Family,” a secretive fundamentalist Christian group that boasts a large number of prominent politicians as members. In May 2008, we published an excerpt from Jeff Sharlet’s bestselling book on the organization. Last year, scandal rocked the Family as Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), a member of the group, was caught up in a sordid sex scandal. (Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who was affiliated with the Family during his time in Congress, also got caught up in a sex scandal.)

Ensign, along with Senators Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), and John Ensign (R-Nev.); and Representatives Mike Doyle (D-Penn.), Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) and Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), was one of the residents of a house on C Street in Washington, near the Capitol. The so-called “C Street house” is owned by a Family-affiliated group and is a center for Family-related activity.

Now the C Street residents are facing new problems—and this time, they’re not related to a sex scandal. An August 2009 article in World magazine about the C Street house revealed that its residents pay around $950 per month to live in the house. In exchange, they don’t just get a room—they get housekeeping service, too, and meals are sometimes available. Clergy VOICE, a group of clergy from different faith traditions, thought that sounded fishy, so they did a little digging:

The group surveyed the Capitol Hill rental market and discovered that nearby hotels charge a minimum of $2,400 per month, corporate housing costs a minimum of $4,000 per month and efficiency or one bedroom apartments typically go for at least $1,700 per month. None of these rates include any meals.

It appears that the residents of the C Street house are the beneficiaries of subsidized housing. So Clergy VOICE filed an IRS complaint asking how the subsidy might affect the C Street residents’ taxes. On Thursday, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a DC good-government group, filed ethics complaints against the house’s occupants:

The House and Senate gift rules specifically include “lodging” as a prohibited gift. There are only two exceptions to the ban on accepting lodging: if it is provided by an individual based on personal friendship, or if it is hospitality in a personal residence owned by an individual. Here, because a corporate entity – C Street Center, Inc. – owns the property, neither exception applies. In addition, members may not accept gifts offered to members of Congress because of their official positions. As only members of Congress appear to live in the C Street House, it seems likely that it is because of their positions that they are permitted to live there and are offered below market rent.

CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan stated, “At a time when so many Americans are losing their housing it is surprising to discover that some members of Congress are lucky enough to have a landlord that charges below market rent for fairly luxurious accommodations – and offers housekeeping and meal service to boot.” Sloan continued, “Rarely does someone – particularly a member of Congress – receive something for nothing, 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.”

There’s more on this over at CREW’s site.

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