By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 23, 2010; A03
The owners of a $1.8 million townhouse on Capitol Hill that has been home and refuge to conservative members of Congress are wrongly claiming a federal tax exemption reserved for religious establishments, 13 Ohio clergy members contend in a complaint to the Internal Revenue Service.
The clergy suspect that the C Street Center, which rents living space to lawmakers, is "an exclusive club for powerful officials . . . masquerading as a church," according to a request for an investigation addressed to IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman.
The Ohio clergy, all Protestant members of Clergy Voice, say that the house serves no public interest and has no recognized creed or form of worship.
The 130-year-old brick townhouse at 133 C St. SE. drew unwelcome publicity and the scrutiny of D.C. tax authorities last summer, after South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) said while confessing an extramarital affair on national television that he had sought spiritual advice there. Residents say they share meals and Bible study.
Soon after, it emerged that a resident of the house, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), was having an affair with the wife of a former aide. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a colleague and fellow resident, said he met the cuckolded husband at the house and worked to end the affair and save Ensign's marriage.
And former Rep. Charles W. "Chip" Pickering Jr., a Mississippi Republican, entertained his mistress there, according to court papers filed by his estranged wife.
D.C. authorities inspected the house in 2009 and classified it as 66 percent taxable and 34 percent tax-exempt.
Calls directed to the C Street Center, affiliated with the Fellowship Foundation, a Virginia-based group that sponsors the National Prayer Breakfast, were not returned Monday.
"C Street is a completely separate foundation with its own board. It's separate ownership, and I haven't been there personally in probably six years," said Richard Carver, president of the Fellowship Foundation. "We have no direct connection in any way with their status or what goes on at C Street."
The letter to the IRS will be sent Tuesday, said the Rev. Eric Williams, senior pastor at North Congregational United Church of Christ in Columbus. He called it a matter of church-and-state separation, with this a potential example of undue church influence on government through members of Congress.
Some of the signers of the letter have sought IRS investigations of pastors who endorsed political candidates from the pulpit, beginning with 2006 Ohio gubernatorial candidate J. Kenneth Blackwell. The group's attorney is Marcus Owens, former director of the IRS office that regulates tax-exempt organizations.
It is unclear who is living at the house. A spokesman for Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) said the congressman moved from there "fairly recently. He decided to look for another place to live."
Asked whether Ensign still rents a room in the house, a spokesman for the senator said he does not publicly discuss his living arrangements. A spokesman for Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) said Brownback lived there briefly years ago. Other lawmakers who have been mentioned as residents of the house did not return phone calls.
"At bottom, it does not appear to be a house of worship 'reasonably available' for the public to use," the clergy wrote. "We are aware of no reports of the C Street Center conducting religious education for the young, holding services for the masses or promulgating religious teachings."
Williams said, "We've got an organization posing as a church."
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.