WASHINGTON -- Sen. John Ensign was named in a new ethics complaint filed Thursday that alleges he and other lawmakers who lived in a church-affiliated group house on Capitol Hill paid cut-rate rents in violation of congressional gift rules.
The complaint targets eight senators and House members who have lived in the stately brick three-story townhouse on C Street SE, behind the Library of Congress and just a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol.
The complaint by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington centers on the rent that was reported by World magazine in August to be about $950 monthly. CREW contended that is well below comparable rents for a furnished bedroom and housekeeping services anywhere in the Capitol area.
"Few Americans are lucky enough to have landlords who accept below market rent while also offering housekeeping and meal service," Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW, wrote in the complaint. "One cannot help but wonder exactly what the senators have done for C Street in return for this largesse."
The home is owned by the C Street Center Inc., an affiliate of a religious group known as the Fellowship Foundation. The foundation sponsors the annual National Prayer Breakfast and international development projects, and holds Bible study and prayer meetings at the house, which is registered with the Internal Revenue Service as a church.
After decades out of the spotlight, the organization and its property at 133 C Street SE have come into unflattering view after being mentioned in connection with extramarital affairs by Ensign, R-Nev.; Chip Pickering, a former Mississippi Republican congressman who lived there; and Mark Sanford, the South Carolina governor who said he used to attend meetings there when he was a member of Congress in the mid-1990s.
The complaint was filed with the Senate and House ethics committees.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington is a watchdog group that has filed other complaints contending Ensign has broken other Senate rules and federal laws stemming from his extramarital affair with former campaign aide Cynthia Hampton.
Investigators for the Senate and the Justice Department are looking into allegations the Nevada senator might have violated federal lobbying law in his efforts to obtain clients and smooth the 2008 departure of Doug Hampton, who had been a top aide on his staff and who was the husband of Ensign's mistress.
In the complaint filed Thursday, CREW maintained the lawmakers' living arrangement is "a clear violation of the gifts rule" that prohibits them from knowingly accepting "any gratuity, favor, discount, entertainment, hospitality, loan, forbearance or other item having monetary value."
A Protestant clergy group from Ohio, Clergy Voice, also has called for the IRS to investigate the matter, contending the owners of the home have been wrongly claiming a federal tax exemption as a church.
In a letter to the IRS this week, Clergy Voice also suggested that residents might be violating tax law by not reporting any rent subsidy as taxable income.
Research by Clergy Voice that was cited in the CREW complaint found the Capitol Hill Suites, a block away on C Street, charges between $149 and $259 per night for its lowest-priced rooms, and that no hotel room in Washington can be found for less than $80 per night, or $2,400 per month.
Besides Ensign, the CREW complaint names Sens. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.; Tom Coburn, R-Okla.; Jim DeMint, R-S.C.; and Reps. Bart Stupak, D-Mich.; Zach Wamp, R-Tenn.; Mike Doyle, D-Pa.; and Heath Shuler, D-N.C., as among current or former residents.
A spokesman for Coburn said the rent covers a furnished room and shared bathroom. It does not include meals, housekeeping in his room or parking and is therefore in line with market prices.
Doyle and Stupak told The Associated Press that they no longer live in the house but that while there, the rent was fairly assessed.
Brownback, who no longer lives in the house, did not respond to Associated Press calls for comment.
Ensign reportedly moved out of the C Street house last fall after living there for most of the time after arriving in Congress in 1995, except for 1999-2000 when he was out of office.
Ensign has declined to discuss the C Street Center, his move or where he currently resides while in Washington.
"I can only tell you that we don't address Senator Ensign's living arrangements," spokeswoman Jennifer Cooper said in an e-mail Thursday.
Sloan, a former Department of Justice attorney, said the alleged housing gift for members of Congress is an example of how the Fellowship religious organization, also referred to as the Family, seeks to act as a government power broker.
"The whole point is they do like to bring government officials together, it helps them to be more powerful," Sloan said.
If the ethics committees conclude the lawmakers violated the gift rule, they would have broad leeway to set a penalty, Sloan said.
"There is no specific penalty. It is up to the ethics committees," Sloan said. "They could reprimand them, sanction them, censure them. They could make them pay the difference between the below-market rent and what the real rent should have been to the Treasury as a fine."
Sloan said the house is different from a country club or other organization a member of Congress might join because it appears restricted to elected officials, as opposed to open to anyone with money to pay.
"It appears that, in fact, they got this exactly because they were members of Congress, not despite that," she said.
Review-Journal reporter Benjamin Spillman contributed to this report. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760.