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December 18, 2014

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THE SENATOR’S SCANDAL:

Christian group paid for Ensign’s foreign travel

The Family-sponsored trips to Japan, Middle East legal

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John Ensign

Jeff Sharlet lived in The Family's house in 2002. "The Family began with the idea that God does not work through churches but rather through those whom The Family calls the 'New Chosen,'" he said during an interview on KNPR-FM's public affairs show "State of Nevada."

Jeff Sharlet lived in The Family's house in 2002. "The Family began with the idea that God does not work through churches but rather through those whom The Family calls the 'New Chosen,'" he said during an interview on KNPR-FM's public affairs show "State of Nevada."

The Family

133 C Street S.E. is registered as a church and affiliated with a secretive Christian group known as The Family. It is the Washington home of several influential conservative politicians, including Sen. John Ensign of Nevada. Launch slideshow »

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Republican Sen. John Ensign took three trips paid for by an arm of the religious group The Family, which operates the C Street house that has been at the center of recent sex scandals involving the Nevadan and other elected officials.

The trips Ensign took in 2003 and 2004 to Tokyo and the Middle East were apparently allowed under congressional ethics laws that have since been rewritten to restrict privately funded travel.

But the trips have come to light as questions have arisen about the secretive group and its work with elected officials.

Ensign and Republican South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford have admitted to extramarital affairs. Both have ties to C Street. Former Republican Rep. Chip Pickering has been accused of an affair while he lived there.

Author Jeff Sharlet, whose book “The Family” includes insight from his month spent living with the organization, wrote that “The Family acts today like the most powerful lobby in America that isn’t registered as a lobby — and is thus immune from the scrutiny attending the other powerful organizations.”

Sharlet wrote this week on Salon.com that the group sends its members around the world to spread what he calls Biblical capitalism — a brand of fiscal conservatism rooted in the philosophy of the group’s founder, who believed the Great Depression was God’s punishment for the socialist leanings of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In the group’s earlier days, it was supportive of the anti-communist campaign of Indonesian dictator Suharto, and “sent delegations of congressmen and oil executives to pray to Jesus with the Muslim leader,” Sharlet said.

In Africa, the group sent a senator and defense contractor as emissaries to Somali Siad Barre, who agreed to pray to the “American Christ in return for American military aid, which he then used to wreak biblical terror on his nation,” the author said.

Information about Ensign’s trips is limited. Ensign’s office declined to offer further details.

Travel records show that Ensign traveled twice in 2003 and once in 2004 on trips funded by the International Foundation, which is identified on tax records as part of the Fellowship Foundation, the official name of the group behind The Family.

The group provided more than $15,000 for the three trips, according to congressional travel records.

The senator went twice to Tokyo, from Aug. 26 to 31, 2003, and from Aug. 21 to 25, 2004. The purpose was described as “participation in policy dialogue and programs with Japanese government officials,” according to records compiled by Legistorm.com.

A newspaper article at the time referred to the 2004 trip as a conference on international disputes at a Mount Fuji retreat, and noted it was the second consecutive year Ensign had attended the foundation-sponsored trip. When asked about the foundation upon his return in 2004, Ensign told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “I know very little about it.”

Another foundation-sponsored trip, Dec. 8-13, 2003, was to Tel Aviv, Israel, and Amman, Jordan, for “participation in fact finding trip.”

Records show the group also paid for two Republican lawmakers from the House to travel to the same Middle Eastern areas around the time of Ensign’s trip.

In all, the Fellowship Foundation has spent $95,185 paying for 20 lawmaker trips since 2000. Seventeen of those trips were taken by Republicans (including the three by Ensign) and three by Democrats.

In its nonprofit tax filing, the foundation describes its primary purpose as: “To develop and maintain an informal association of people banded together, to go out as ‘ambassadors of reconciliation,’ modeling the principles of Jesus, based on loving God and loving others. To work with the leaders of many nations.”

Professor Clyde Wilcox, who teaches government at Georgetown University, said nothing is inherently wrong with religious groups sending lawmakers abroad.

Evangelical groups, for example, took lawmakers to Africa to show them the reality of the AIDS epidemic on that continent.

“The notion you would promote religion among the leaders of a society is not outlandish,” Wilcox said. The Constitution separates church from state, it doesn’t bar religious participation.

“At some level the sort of merging of capitalism and Christian conservatism and fundamentalism — we’ve had that for a long time,” said Wilcox, who has written about religion and politics. “It’s reasonable to think groups like this have a right to exist and they can do what they want in terms of sending people around.”

Congressional ethics laws were tightened when Democrats took control of Congress in 2007, and the new law restricts privately funded travel paid for by lobbyists. Nonprofit organizations can still sponsor trips.

But if the foundation is engaging in freelance diplomacy that is lending government support to overseas leaders or granting government contracts outside of official channels, there could be concerns.

Craig Holman of the watchdog group Public Citizen notes that a loophole in the new ethics law allows nonprofit organizations to continue funding lawmaker trips.

The powerful American-Israel lobby group, AIPAC, for example, continues to send elected officials to Israel, he said.

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