The following story was reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune.
Utah congressional candidate Burgess Owens’ campaign is built largely on the foundation of his personal narrative: The descendant of a slave, he found fame and fortune as a professional football player only to later fall victim to his own sense of invincibility. He struggled through bankruptcy and despair before his redemption through hard work and self-reliance.
In the process, he says, he converted from a “liberal Democrat” to a proud conservative.
An important part of the arc of his journey is his post-NFL career “mission” to help at-risk, incarcerated youths through his Second Chance 4 Youth nonprofit.
“Since retiring from the NFL, Burgess has devoted his time to mentoring and improving the lives of our next generation of leaders. He founded Second Chance 4 Youth, a Utah-based non-profit organization dedicated to helping troubled and incarcerated youth,” the bio on his campaign website says.
In an interview with Black Christian News shortly after the November launch of his congressional bid, he called this work “his mission in life” — one that he’s been doing “for the last several years.”
He was affiliated with one nonprofit working in this area for about a year beginning in 2017, though his role in it is hard to unravel. But as far as Second Chance 4 Youth (SC4Y), it was first established June 3, 2019, according to state corporation records, and Owens appears to have headed it for only about four months.
Melissa Moss, who took over the nonprofit last October when Owens stepped back to focus on running for Congress, says that she cannot comment on what SC4Y did previously.
Overall, information about the nonprofit is hard to come by. SC4Y’s mission is to help incarcerated youths reenter society. But the website has not been updated in months and the nonprofit does not yet have any reports on file with the IRS.
In July, however, Owens — who is still listed as its president in state records — was notified by the Utah Division of Consumer Protection that he had failed to fill out papers required of nonprofits that seek to solicit donations. Last month, the nonprofit finally turned in the application and acknowledged it had been soliciting donations without the proper registration, saying it was “not aware” of the requirement.
During all of 2019, including Owens’ time as CEO of SC4Y, the state filing shows, the organization raised $108,793 in donations. Some $78,521 of that went to pay salaries and expenses and fundraising costs, leaving just 27.8% of the money raised — $30,273 — available for charitable programs.
How much went directly to helping incarcerated youths? Zero, according to the records.
A different portion of the same document lists a larger amount left over for charitable purposes: 40.7%. That section appears to move $15,000 reported to have been spent on employee salaries into the category of funds available for charity.
What does SC4Y do?
Still unclear is what exactly Owens’ continuing relationship with SC4Y is.
Despite repeated attempts by phone and email, his campaign would not comment for this story on Owens’ work for the nonprofit.
A profile bio on the website of the Indiana-based Sagamore Institute, SC4Y’s fiduciary partner, suggests that Owens is a traveling ambassador, doing national speaking engagements “delivering a message of optimism, hope, and unity.”
The SC4Y papers Owens filed with the state of Utah does note that the nonprofit spent $9,561 on travel in 2019 for fundraising purposes. It’s unclear, though, whether the travel was for Owens, another staffer or for the expense of flying performers in for a benefit concert.
On the third night of last month’s Republican National Convention, Owens, a former NFL Super Bowl champion, took the stage to embrace the American dream, telling the narrative that begins with his great-great-grandfather, a slave named Silas Burgess, who escaped his chains to build a new life.
“We live in a country we are encouraged to dream big, where second chances are at the core of our DNA,” he said during his speech.
It’s a line right from the mission statement on SC4Y’s website, which also states that all donations are “tax deductible and used only to advance our mission of mentoring young men and women through proven programs that reduce recidivism, promote self-reliance, and contribute to personal and professional success.”
The details of how SC4Y helps incarcerated youths are murky.
Owens was interviewed on KSL’s “Studio 5” on July 5, 2019, to promote a benefit concert for the nonprofit by the musical group Sons of Serendip.
“I understand Second Chance 4 Youth is described as an ‘incubator reform model.’ I don’t know what that means, teach me,” the host asked.
Owens went on to list statistics about incarcerated youths and the high rates of recidivism for those leaving the juvenile justice system but didn’t answer the question.
The host tried again. “So back to that descriptor, ‘incubator reform,’ what does that mean?”
“We’re working with the juvenile system. This is something that can only be done at the state level,” Owens said. “We want to put together a model here [in Utah] that works with one of the colleges here, and as that works we can take that out across the country to Chicago, Baltimore and Philadelphia, where they might not have the resources to make it happen.”
Jackie Chamberlain, spokesperson for the state Division of Juvenile Justice Services, says that Owens volunteered with incarcerated juveniles in October 2018. It wasn’t in connection with SC4Y, which didn’t exist at the time, but with a separate organization, the One Heart Project. This nonprofit helped youths at the Decker Lake Youth Center, a secure detention facility in West Valley City, build a shed to learn vocational skills. It also offered youth opportunities to get homebuilding certificates when they left the system.
While One Heart social media and news release accounts identified Owens as its executive director, Utah corporation records do not, instead listing out-of-state individuals as its leaders. Owens is identified as a registered agent — someone who can accept court papers or mail for a corporation. The nonprofit’s registration expired in January 2019.
Despite the fact the Decker shed-building effort was conducted by the One Heart Project, SC4Y’s website lists it as one of its initiatives involving “certification as Framers by Salt Lake Community College in collaboration with Utah Home Builders Association.” The website even shows a picture of a shed built “by incarcerated youth.”
Chamberlain, the state official, says SC4Y does do mentoring by Zoom with incarcerated youths at multiple juvenile facilities, giving them lessons from a state Board of Education curriculum on job-interviewing skills. However, that didn’t start until last spring — almost six months after the nonprofit was taken over by new leadership.
“Approximately 25 to 30 kids have worked with their volunteers,” Chamberlain says of the nonprofit’s work this year.
Moss disputes the timing of the program’s beginning, and says that mentoring began in late 2019 when she took over SC4Y from Owens and that she personally facilitated mentoring classes twice a week in a secure juvenile facility.
On Jan. 8, Owens’ federal filing with the U.S. House of Representatives stated: “I’ve resigned day to day involvement as CEO [of SC4Y] but will continue compensation of $70,000/year as Founder and Board Chairman.”
The filing also stated that his 2019 salary for the nonprofit was $70,000.
But that salary — if accurate — is problematic. Federal campaign finance law prohibits corporations, both for-profit and nonprofit — from essentially paying a candidate to campaign. According to legal experts, candidates for federal office have to take a reduced salary based on the work they do for a nonprofit.
“If campaigning means you have to step away from your duties at work, you can’t be continued to be paid your full salary,” said Bryson Morgan, attorney with Caplin & Drysdale, a Washington, D.C.-based firm that lists laws governing politics as one of its specialities.
“That results in an illegal contribution from your employer to your campaign,” Morgan said.
Papers filed with the state, in contrast to Owens’ federal filing putting his annual salary at $70,000, indicate management and general salary of $29,000 paid in 2019, although it’s unclear if all or only part of that went to Owens.
And Moss, who took over leadership of the nonprofit last October, said it was her understanding that Owens was compensated $35,000 in 2019. She also said that Owens has been receiving minimal consulting fees since stepping down as president.
She referred payroll questions to the Sagamore Institute, the Indiana-based think tank that is the fiduciary partner of SC4Y, with the nonprofit operating under Sagamore’s 501(c)(3) status.
The institute’s chief financial officer, Rich Westlake, stated that Owens had received $12,000 in 2020 since he had stepped back from leadership responsibilities. He said Owens had a $3,000 per month retainer but could not say when that started, saying he was new to the position and couldn’t access the information.
Summur Berrett, Owens’ daughter, is listed on state records as a director of SC4Y and on its website as “executive program coordinator.” She said the website is out of date and that her sole responsibility at the nonprofit was setting up the Sons of Serendip benefit concert for fundraising.
Berrett said she had resigned from the nonprofit in December and now works doing public relations for her father’s campaign.
When a reporter asked how much compensation she received from SC4Y — state filings indicate it paid $15,000 in employee salary and wages without identifying specific employees — Berrett said that information was “irrelevant” and hung up the phone.
Clarification: 5:30 p.m., Sept. 22, 2020: Melissa Moss, who currently heads SC4Y, says the nonprofit began mentoring youth in the state juvenile justice system in 2019 soon after she took over leadership of the organization from Burgess Owens.