The C Street Center, a boarding house for Christian lawmakers made famous by its role in the Ensign and Sanford scandals, is facing two complaints from a group of Ohio pastors. The pastors allege that the center is improperly using its tax status to offer below-market rents to members of Congress — a charge that could ensnare the members as well.
The 13 pastors, who say they’re concerned about the separation of church and state, filed one complaint with the IRS arguing that C Street has improperly declared itself a “church” for taxation purposes on February 23. Their second IRS complaint, filed this week and obtained by TPM, alleges that C Street’s rent is much lower than market price. The problem, according to the complaint, is that the members are either not paying taxes on that extra income, or that they’re receiving unreported gifts.
Lawmakers who live in the house reportedly pay $950 a month in rent for a furnished room and housekeeping services. The complaint, written by the group’s lawyer and former director of the IRS’s tax-exempt department Marcus Owens, states that one-bedroom apartments in the area run about $1,700 a month. Corporate housing and hotels — which, like C Street, offer amenities like housekeeping — charge up to $7,000 a month, according to the complaint.
At the low end, that’s a savings of $9,000 a year.
The IRS did not respond to a request for comment.
As TPMmuckraker reported last year, the house lost part of its tax exemption from the Washington, D.C., tax office due to the private residences.
Besides Ensign, lawmakers including Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), as well as Reps. Zach Wamp (R-TN), Bart Stupak (D-MI) and Mike Doyle (D-PA), have all reportedly lived at C Street.
This isn’t the first time the pastors’ leader, the Rev. Eric Williams of North Church in Columbus, has filed a complaint over the separation of church and state. In 2006, he and a group of 30 other pastors filed several complaints against two large Ohio churches, charging that they were improperly endorsing a candidate for governor. In 2008, Williams and others complained about a group from Arizona that was encouraging clergymen to endorse candidates and issues from the pulpit.
“I’m a child of God and I find my deepest worth in that, so the integrity of the church as a representative of God is important to me,” Williams told TPM. “I’m also a passionate registered voter.”
Although the C Street house is known to have ties to the Fellowship, a secretive Christian group also known as the Family, the director of the Fellowship denied this to the Columbus Dispatch. The house “is simply not a part of anything we do,” he said.
But, as the Dispatch points out, the house’s property deed was signed by the Family’s secretary, and the Family described the house as an affiliated organization on recent tax forms.
At the heart of their complaints, the pastors say, is the concern that the separation of church and state has been breached, with the Fellowship using below-market rents to buy the influence of the lawmakers.
Another pastor who signed the complaint, the Rev. Al Debelak of the Redeemer Lutheran Church, told TPM he decided to sign on after reading a book about the Family.
“I’m concerned when things are not done in the light of day, especially in the church or any religious institution,” Debelak said. “I’m concerned when people use religious words, like when you say ‘Jesus,’ you’re in. That becomes abusive.”
Late update: The watchdog group CREW, or Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, followed the pastors today by filing similar complaints with the Senate and House ethics committees.
The complaints name Sens. Sam Brownback (R-KS), Tom Coburn (R-OK), Jim DeMint (R-SC), and John Ensign (R-NV), as well as Reps. Mike Doyle (D-PA), Heath Shuler (D-NC), Bart Stupak (D-MI) and Zach Wamp (R-TN) as having received improper gifts from the C Street Center by paying below-market rent.
As a matter of policy, the committees don’t comment on complaints or confirm whether they are investigating.