Rep. Burgess Owens’ campaign has paid his daughter more than $150,000

Rep. Burgess Owens’ campaign has paid his daughter more than $150,000
(George Frey|AP Utah Rep. Burgess Owens talks to supporters during a Utah Republican primary election night party on Tuesday, June 28, 2022, in South Jordan, Utah.)

The following story was reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with KUER.

Congressman Burgess Owens’ congressional biography page lists “faith, family, free markets and education” as his guiding principles. But family is more than just a campaign platform for the 4th District representative. Since he first ran for office in 2020, he has paid over $150,000 in campaign funds to his daughter Summur Berrett for campaign work.

According to reporting by Mother Jones, Berrett was a flight attendant before joining Owens’ campaign in 2019. The six figures include payments for “social media consulting,” “campaign consulting” and primarily “strategic consulting.”

Experts say these payments could raise concerns about transparency with voters and donors to the Owens campaign.

While Quin Monson, a professor of political science at Brigham Young University who studies elections and campaigns, acknowledged he’s not a campaign finance lawyer, he said the payments could send the wrong message to constituents.

“The fact that this is a family member and that she doesn’t appear to be consulting for anyone or anywhere else makes it a bit of a red flag,” Monson said. “On the other hand, I’m not sure that there’s anything that prohibits this.”

Saurav Ghosh is an election law attorney with the Campaign Legal Center in Washington D.C. and a former lawyer with the Federal Election Commission. He said that hiring a family member can go beyond just looking bad.

“It’s legally bad when a candidate is giving money to a family member and it’s not at all clear that they’re paying for a real service or paying what they would otherwise pay to someone at arm’s length,” said Ghosh.

In a statement to The Utah Investigative Journalism Project, Rep. Owens defended his daughter’s work.

“She has played a pivotal role in consulting with me and my team since my first days in the political arena. Without her, I would not be in the position to serve Utah’s Fourth Congressional District. I am so proud of my daughter. She is a brilliant woman who has been rightfully compensated for her service to my campaign, and I expect to continue working with her for years to come,” Owens’ statement reads.

Berrett did not respond to The Utah Investigative Journalism Project’s request for comment.

“Senior Political Strategist for a Congressman”

Berrett has long been active in her father’s work. In 2019, she was listed as a director of Owens’ nonprofit, Second Chance 4 Youth. In 2020, she told The Utah Investigative Journalism Project that she was then only responsible for setting up a fundraising concert.

While Berrett received $150,000 from 2019 to the second half of 2023, the records are sparse on specific details about the work she did. FEC records only list bare descriptions of work such as “strategic consulting.”

But Berrett is not listed as a member of any business in Utah — including any related to consulting or politics. Records also indicate she has not received payments for consulting from any other federal candidates or officeholders. And unlike other campaign consultants, she has no professional page such as an active LinkedIn profile describing the work she does. She does have a private Instagram profile that lists her as a “Senior Political Strategist for a Congressman.”

FEC reports show Berrett received $36,019 in 2020 — the year of Owens’ first election. She also received $69,405 in 2021 — a non-election year — primarily for “strategic consulting.” Those funds also included thousands spent on airfare, lodging and transportation to and from Washington D.C. In 2022, she received $41,500 and only $730 in the first half of 2023.

Records show Berrett wasn’t the only person receiving payment for consulting. During this same time period, Owens spent a total of $2.36 million on consulting. That is more than all of Utah’s other congressmen spent on consulting in that same period — combined.

The 2020 race was a close contest against Utah’s then-lone Democrat in the U.S. House, Ben McAdams. But Monson added that since then “Owens hasn’t faced serious competition yet.”

“Very squishy”

Ghosh said candidates risk more than just upsetting voters by paying family members for campaign work.

“While you’re allowed to hire family members, you can’t pay them in excess of what you would be able to pay someone else who wasn’t a family member to provide the same service,” Ghosh said. “They have to be paid at the fair market rate.”

They also have to be providing a genuine service for that payment. He said election regulators have struggled in enforcing that rule — especially when payments are for vague and what he describes as “very squishy” job titles like “strategic consulting” or “campaign consulting.”

“If they’re either not providing bona fide services or if they’re being paid more than a non-family consultant would be paid, that’s illegal,” Ghosh said. “That’s definitely a concern because it’s not only nepotism, but it’s enriching the family at the cost of the donors.”

While Berrett was paid more than any individual by the campaign for consulting since her father’s election, another entity, RedRock Strategies, received just over $1 million for consulting work.

RedRock’s website lists a staff of 20 specializing in marketing, political strategy and consulting, and public affairs and government relations. The website states the organization has “worked in over 40 states and 2 continents, has elected more than two dozen people to the United States Congress, and has been victorious in hundreds of down-ballot contests.”

Ultimately for Monson, it’s hard to speculate on the work Berrett did, but the true issue is transparency. He said he believes Owens should provide more context to the payments made.

“I think it’s a question that every candidate should answer in terms of being more specific about how they spend their campaign funds,” he said.

While Owens was asked about details on projects and initiatives that Berrett worked on, the congressman’s statement did not provide specific answers, beyond noting that “she is a talented conservative communicator and strategist.”

Ghosh said that it is a high enough level of funds paid to a family member that it might even be of concern to federal regulators. He said campaign finance laws are not just red tape — they are meant to protect the public trust.

“These are people who are running for public office,” Ghosh said. “They’re asking the public to trust them with the tremendous power and responsibility of governing. And that starts with how they conduct their campaign finances.”

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