The Office of Congressional Ethics is apparently investigating whether Members of Congress sharing a residence run by a religious organization have received an improper gift in the form of below-market rent in the building.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who lives in the residence known as the "C Street house," told Roll Call on Tuesday that he has not been contacted by ethics investigators seeking information about the residence but added, "I know some House Members have been asked for it. This is not the ethics committee. It's the other one," Coburn said, referring to the OCE, which was created by the House in 2007 to vet complaints and refer cases to the ethics committee.
The C Street Southeast house is owned by a Christian organization known as the Fellowship, or the Family, which runs the annual National Prayer Breakfast. A handful of Members of Congress have lived there over the past several years, and there also are regular prayer meetings there for Members who do not live in the house.
The residence became the focus of attention last summer when Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) acknowledged having an affair with the wife of his chief of staff and said his housemates at C Street attempted to intervene to end the affair.
Shortly thereafter, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R), in a rambling press conference about his own extramarital affair, mentioned that he had gone to C Street for counseling.
The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed complaints in April with the OCE and the Senate Ethics Committee, arguing that the Members' living arrangements at C Street appeared to be an improper gift.
The CREW complaint cited news articles indicating that Members paid $950 a month to live at the C Street residence and argued that is far below market value for a living situation that more closely resembles a hotel than a private apartment. Citing news reports, CREW said the residents at C Street received maid and laundry service and occupied furnished rooms.
CREW asked the OCE to investigate Reps. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.). The group asked the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate Coburn, Ensign and Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), all of whom had been reported to live at the C Street house at various times since 2003.
Coburn said the allegations are nonsense and he had not been contacted by the Senate Ethics Committee. Ensign is under a separate investigation into allegations that he helped his aide start a lobbying business as a kind of payoff for the aide's silence about the affair.
It is not clear how far the OCE has gone in investigating the matter on the House side. A spokesman for Doyle said he was not aware of any contact from the OCE, and a spokeswoman for Stupak said the same. Inquiries to the offices of Wamp, Moran and Shuler were not returned.
Moran, who is running to replace Brownback in the Senate, has recently downplayed the amenities at C Street.
At an April campaign event with Coburn in Wichita, Kan., Moran was asked about the CREW complaint. He described the C Street house as a place where Members gather for Bible study, and he said, "It became a residence of mine several years ago. I rent a room there with other colleagues and moved my bed in and share a bathroom with other folks."
Moran added, "I've never even showered at C Street."
Moran has said he believes the complaint is groundless, and he said at the Wichita event: "I do believe that there are those people that want to make certain that one's religious faith is not something that is mingled with their public service. ... My public service is clearly related to my beliefs as a Christian."
Ethics lawyer C. Simon Davidson, who is a contributing writer for Roll Call, said "the fundamental issue is, Did they receive a gift?' In order to determine whether they received a gift, you would need to determine whether they received disproportionately more than what they paid for." In short, did the Members pay a fair price for their lodging?
But Davidson pointed out, "The difficulty is that it is not clear that there is really a fair market value for this type of thing. It is such an unusual living arrangement," more akin to a rooming house than a normal hotel or apartment building.
When the OCE opens an investigation, the office may review a matter for up to three months. After that, the OCE must refer to the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct a recommendation for further review or dismissal.
But if the OCE abandons an investigation after the first 30 days of an inquiry, it is not required to issue a report to the ethics panel, and the probe is not released to the public.