A handful of Members of Congress have accepted more than $100,000 worth of free international travel from the religious organization affiliated with the "C Street house," a Capitol Hill townhouse linked to recent Congressional sex scandals.
While most of the Members have taken a trip or two from the Fellowship Foundation, also known as the International Foundation, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) accepted foreign trips worth more than $50,000 over the past four years.
The Fellowship Foundation is a low-profile religious organization that has been in the news recently because of its connection to the C Street house, a townhouse on Capitol Hill that hosts regular prayer meetings and serves as the D.C. residence for several Members of Congress.
Since 2000, the organization has spent just over $101,000 on 13 foreign trips for Members of Congress to meet and pray with political leaders in other countries, according to Congressional travel records.
Aderholt alone has accepted seven trips from the group in the past four years, at a total value of $62,000. In 2006, Aderholt accepted three fellowship-funded trips — to Kazakhstan, Sudan and Serbia — worth a total of about $28,000.
Other Members who have accepted trips from the Fellowship Foundation are Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), who also lives at the C Street house, and Republican Reps. Frank Wolf (Va.), Joe Pitts (Pa.) and John Carter (Texas), according to House records. Sens. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) each also accepted one trip from the foundation. Both Senators have lived at the C Street house.
Detailed trip records filed by Aderholt and Doyle indicate that the foundation-sponsored journeys are generally designed to allow the Members to extend personal relationships with foreign dignitaries who visit the United States for the annual National Prayer Breakfast, which the Fellowship Foundation organizes.
For example, last month Aderholt spent a week in Greece, Albania and Croatia on a trip funded by the Fellowship Foundation at a cost of about $11,000. According to a detailed itinerary on file with the Clerk of the House, Aderholt arrived in Greece in time for the closing of the annual Southeast European Gathering, a Balkan version of the National Prayer Breakfast that he has attended several times on the foundation's dime.
He then traveled to other countries in the region for private meetings with political figures as well as "lunch w Serbian friend," "shopping and sightseeing" and "dinner with local friends who have attended NPB."
Stan Holmes, an official with the Fellowship Foundation who arranged several of the Congressional trips, told Roll Call the travel is intended "to follow up with some of the leaders that come from other countries to those prayer breakfasts. ... It is mostly about building those relationships and those friendships."
Holmes said that while many of the participants in the gatherings are political figures, "there is no policy agenda" and the events are not political. "It's built around the spiritual realm. That is the purpose of the trips."
Aderholt spokesman DJ Jordan said in an e-mail: "As an active participant with the National Prayer Breakfast since his first term in the House, Congressman Aderholt has traveled with the International Foundation to the Balkan Prayer Breakfast as a representative of the House Prayer Breakfast group with the hopes of promoting different factions working together and discussing the life and teachings of Jesus."
In addition, Jordan said, "Congressman Aderholt believes that it is imperative that the United States Congress play an active role in promoting human rights and ethnic and religious freedom around the world. He also thinks that it is important to promote dialogue and build bridges between people of different cultures and faiths."
Aderholt's travel is also relevant to his positions as a member of the Helsinki Commission and vice chairman of the human rights committee of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Jordan said.
Spokesmen for other Members chose not to comment for this story.
The Office of Congressional Ethics last week dismissed a complaint by the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington that several Members were receiving below-market rent at the C Street house. The OCE concluded in letters to the Members that "the OCE Board found that there was not probable cause to believe the alleged allegation occurred."
C Street has received increased attention since Ensign admitted that he held a meeting there with Coburn and others to discuss his affair with a campaign staffer. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) also admitted that he went to the C Street house for counseling during his extramarital affair, and the wife of former Rep. Chip Pickering alleged in divorce proceedings that the Mississippi Republican carried on an affair at the C Street house.
The house has been described as being owned by the fellowship, but Holmes said that is not true. "It isn't owned by us. It has kind of a different agenda," he said. "I don't have meetings there. ... We don't provide funds for it. There is no official link, though we are clearly relationally linked."
According to Washington, D.C., property records, the house is owned by the organization C Street Center, and the registered agent is Marty Sherman. The Fellowship Foundation's tax returns list Sherman as one of four paid staff members, and prior to 2008, it listed the C Street Center as an organization that is related to the foundation "through common membership, governing bodies, trustees [or] officers."
Holmes also emphasized that the Fellowship Foundation does not call itself a Christian organization. The group believes in the teachings of Jesus, but it also believes that those teachings are of relevance to anyone regardless of their religious faith, he said.