NASHVILLE - A government watchdog group on Thursday filed a congressional ethics complaint against U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., and seven other lawmakers, demanding an investigation into whether their rents at a Washington, D.C., townhouse are illegally subsidized by a religious group.
U.S. Rep. Health Shuler, D-N.C., is among other lawmakers included in the complaint, which says congressmen and senators appear to have received sharply discounted rents at the C Street Center, located only a short distance from the U.S. Capitol.
In a statement, Rep. Wamp, a Chattanoogan running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, said "this complaint is baseless because I pay fair market rent and my housing arrangements have always fully complied with the U.S. House of Representatives rules and regulations."
Efforts to reach Rep. Shuler's office were unsuccessful.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said her group filed the complaint "because members of Congress appear to be violating the gift rule by taking reduced, below-market rents from the C Street Center Inc."
Ms. Sloan said the C Street Center is affiliated with The Family or The Fellowship, which she described as a "very secretive religious organization."
Congress' gift ban, Ms. Sloan said, makes exceptions for a lawmaker accepting lodging out of a personal friendship with an individual, but it can't be accepted if offered by a group and also can't be accepted if offered simply because they are in Congress. Only lawmakers are invited to live at C Street, she said.
In a recent interview, Rep. Wamp, who has lived at C Street since at least 2002, said, "I'd say that a lot of the members of Congress don't know any more about their landlord than I know about this foundation and their tax exempt status. So unless you want to do an expose on 435 members, then in my opinion, we're kind of being singled out."
A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., told Fox News the charges were part of a "witch hunt."
Both The Fellowship, which is involved in the National Prayer Breakfast, and C Street residents found themselves shoved into the national limelight last year. That came following controversies in which a then-C Street dweller, U.S. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., and a former visitor to the house, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, became embroiled in separate adulterous affairs.
A separate complaint filed Monday on behalf of a group of Ohio ministers with the Internal Revenue Service cited reports stating fees to live at the nine-bedroom 133 C St. house were $950 a month, which included housekeeping services.
The group, Clergy Voice, said in its complaint that the Capitol Hill Suites, located about a block from the C Street Center, charges between $149 to $259 a night or $4,500 to $7,500 a month. It said a survey of Capitol Hill area "efficiency" or one-bedroom apartments were "were generally in the range of $1,700."
The group stated that its tax attorney said if C Street charges below-market rates and the congressmen are not including its value in their taxable income, "then the members may have significant unreported income tax liabilities."
This is the group's second complaint involving C Street. The first one challenged the C Street Center's IRS tax exemption as a church, calling it "an exclusive club for powerful officials ... masquerading as a church."
Rep. Wamp said his base rent, excluding food and other expenses, was $600 a month. That has been unchanged for years, but he noted he moved into a smaller room with no bathroom. He now spends about six to seven nights a month at the residence, he said.
"I have an eight-by-ten room with no closet," the congressman said. "I have to walk to the other end of the house to use a bathroom."