The faith-based organization behind the National Prayer Breakfast is vigorously denying new allegations from an Ohio clergy group that foreign trips and other activities with Members of Congress may have been funded with money from a terrorist organization.
The allegation grows out of a guilty plea lodged in July by former Rep. Mark Siljander (R-Mich.), who was charged with concealing that he had been hired by the Sudan-based Islamic American Relief Agency to convince the Senate Finance Committee to remove the group from a list of organizations suspected of funding terrorist activities.
The indictment and guilty plea explain that the IARA wrote two $25,000 checks to cover Siljander’s costs but that in order to cloak the payments, the checks were made out to the International Foundation, which cashed the checks and then paid the money to Siljander.
The International Foundation, also known as the Fellowship Foundation, has extensive ties to Capitol Hill. The group is affiliated with a house on C Street where several Members of Congress have lived. It organizes regular prayer meetings for Members and other influential government figures, and — as Roll Call reported in June — it has provided Members with just over $100,000 worth of foreign travel since 2000.
The foundation has little formal structure and only in the past few weeks launched a website making a public declaration of its purpose and mission.
Clergy VOICE, a group of Columbus, Ohio-based ministers, filed a complaint Tuesday with IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman suggesting that the IRS should revoke the foundation’s tax-exempt status based in part on the details spelled out in the Siljander plea.
Clergy VOICE notes that its investigation was the basis for an April complaint filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington alleging that the Fellowship Foundation was providing below-market rent to Members of Congress at the C Street residence. The Office of Congressional Ethics dismissed that complaint.
In the new complaint to the IRS, Clergy VOICE points out that the indictment and guilty plea account only for the foundation paying Siljander $18,337 of the IARA money, which leaves the possibility that the remaining $31,663 may have been used for other foundation activities, including funding Congressional overseas travel or expenses for the C Street location.
“The Foundation continues to provide these travel funds and residential facilities to Members of Congress, and we are concerned that money arising from a terrorist organization has been used in conjunction with these expenses,” the group wrote.
The foundation is normally reluctant to discuss its activities, but President Richard Carver called Roll Call Wednesday to vehemently deny the Clergy VOICE complaint.
“This really kind of upsets me to be very honest about it,” Carver said. “Somebody is attempting to distort the truth substantially.”
Carver said the Fellowship Foundation houses about 200 ministry projects, each of which is responsible for raising its own money. The foundation simply serves the function of gathering the donations and disbursing them, much the way other church groups manage the funds for their missionaries.
Carver provided an e-mail from the foundation’s accounting firm that said, “The accounting records indicate that 100% of the funds received from IARA were distributed to Mark Siljander in the form of wages and benefits.”
Carver was unable to provide the records to Roll Call.
Carver noted that the indictment made no mention of wrongdoing by the foundation, and he said, “There is a good reason why the FBI did not include us in any way, shape or form in the allegations against Mark Siljander. It’s because we have been acting in as clean a way as we could.”
Carver said the organization checks its donors and had no way of knowing at the time that IARA was under suspicion of financing terrorist activities.
But Marc Owens, the lawyer for Clergy VOICE, said: “What [Carver’s] explanation is saying is that they don’t have control over their money. They let other people control it for their private purposes and that raises a question” about whether the foundation is meeting the obligations of its tax-exempt status.
“If this was a single isolated incident, a breakdown in their internal controls, the IRS might not revoke status,” Owens said. “But if it’s a pattern, then it’s a problem.”
Owens said the public documents do not provide enough detail to prove the Fellowship Foundation did something wrong, but they raise serious questions. “All we have are the [Department of Justice] documents, which establish certain facts and those facts create a problem,” Owens said. “What the DOJ has in its indictments issued by grand jury ... and the guilty plea is a set of actions that raise legitimate questions about whether the organization is entitled to tax-exempt status. That doesn’t mean there are not explanatory facts.”
But Owens also notes that the Siljander audit for the court case was conducted by the FBI, which was looking for terrorist activity, not by the IRS, which has responsibility for enforcing tax-exemption rules.
The Clergy VOICE complaint also includes one clip from a Falls Church, Va., local news website suggesting that former CIA Director Porter Goss — who is now the co-chairman of the Office of Congressional Ethics — was a member of a local church connected to the Fellowship Foundation. The group sent a copy of its complaint to House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), who nominated Goss, and said it will urge the OCE to reopen its investigation of C Street with Goss recused.
OCE Communications Director Jon Steinman said he had not heard about the new Clergy VOICE complaint, but he added the panel already has strong conflict-of-interest procedures in place.
“If a member even suspects there may be an inkling of a conflict, that member recuses him[self] or herself,” Steinman said.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.