A Texas House committee is set to investigate allegations against House Speaker Dennis Bonnen. Here’s what we know.
A conservative political activist accused Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen of making a deal at a June meeting to target 10 GOP lawmakers. Bonnen has denied the allegations, but several Texas House members who have heard a recording of the meeting in his office support the activist’s account.
One of the Texas Legislature’s most powerful committees on Aug. 12 is set to launch an investigation into allegations that Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen offered a hardline conservative organization media credentials in exchange for politically targeting a list of Republican House members.
The probe from the House General Investigating Committee comes roughly two weeks after state lawmakers learned of a June 12 meeting between Bonnen and Michael Quinn Sullivan, CEO of the conservative non-profit Empower Texans. State Rep. Dustin Burrows, who chairs the House GOP Caucus, was also in the room.
Sullivan has alleged that during the meeting, Bonnen walked out before Burrows gave Sullivan a list of 10 GOP House members to target during the 2020 primary elections — an allegation that Bonnen has since forcefully pushed back against, though hasn’t yet explicitly denied it.
After Sullivan publicized his allegations, he later revealed he had secretly recorded the meeting. Since then, several House Republicans have listened to it — and have said publicly that the recording largely confirms Sullivan’s account of the meeting.
The varying accounts of what happened on June 12 could have major implications for the House and even Texas Republicans, who are trying to fend off bullish Democrats from potentially flipping the lower chamber in 2020. Here’s what you need to know.
Who is Michael Quinn Sullivan — and what does he say happened?
Sullivan is the CEO of Austin-based Empower Texans, a nonprofit promoting fiscal conservatism with a well-funded political action committee. Sullivan and the group clashed often with the new speaker during the 86th legislative session, arguing that a bevy of conservative priorities championed by the state party failed to pass — and that Bonnen was to blame. Sullivan’s group operates a well-funded political action committee that has long waded into GOP primary races and has built a reputation for sometimes using controversial tactics to help push its cause.
In July, on his organization’s website, Sullivan posted his account of the June 12 meeting, which was held at the Texas Capitol. Bonnen walked out at some point during the meeting, Sullivan said, before Burrows gave him a list of 10 GOP House members to target during the 2020 primary elections.
In return, the organization’s news site, Texas Scorecard, would allegedly receive House media credentials when the Legislature reconvenes in two years.
Sullivan sent Bonnen a letter rejecting his alleged offer on June 19.
Sullivan has said that two House Democrats — Jon Rosenthal of Houston and Michelle Beckley of Carrollton — were the subject of “amusing (if slightly vulgar)” comments by Bonnen at the meeting. A comment was made about Rosenthal’s sexuality, according to multiple lawmakers and political operatives who said they listened to the recording.
Sullivan has also threatened to release recorded audio of the meeting if Bonnen and Burrows do not “recant the lies and misrepresentations he has made.”
What is Bonnen’s response?
At the end of the legislative session, Bonnen told reporters that regardless of political party, he wouldn’t tolerate incumbents campaigning against other House members and warned of consequences if that were to happen.
In a June 27 letter, Bonnen wrote that Sullivan had a “misimpression of our meeting” and that a deal for media credentials in exchange for targeting House members had never been offered. The day following Sullivan’s public allegations about the meeting, Bonnen pushed back against his version of events.
In an email sent to colleagues, Bonnen said he and Burrows told Sullivan it would be important for Empower Texans “to not engage against House Republicans in the upcoming March primaries” and that if the organization did, it would have a “difficult time” qualifying for media credentials.
Bonnen has continued to push back against Sullivan’s account of the meeting. Last week, though, Bonnen penned an apology to members for taking the meeting.
“I was stupid to take a meeting with an individual who has worked hard to divide our House,” Bonnen wrote to House members in an email. “I said terrible things that are embarrassing to the members, to the House, and to me personally.”
What about Burrows?
For now, Burrows, who chairs the House GOP caucus, has not commented publicly since the allegations surfaced.
What do media credentials have to do with it?
House media credentials provide organizations like The Texas Tribune and The Dallas Morning News access to the chamber floor when the Legislature is in session.
Texas Scorecard has long been denied those credentials because it is affiliated with a PAC that tries to influence legislation and elections.
After the organization’s application for credentials was turned down earlier this year — despite being approved in the Senate — the outlet sued the House Administration Committee chairman, arguing its rejection amounted to “unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.” A federal district judge dismissed the case, and Empower Texans is appealing.
Who is on the alleged 10-member list of House Republicans?
The list of GOP lawmakers includes some House members who ran for speaker in late 2018 before Bonnen clinched the position, including Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, Drew Darby of San Angelo and Tan Parker of Flower Mound, according to Sullivan.
In his post last month, Sullivan wrote that Burrows said the list included those who voted against a proposal to ban the practice of taxpayer-funded lobbying — though Sullivan noted that some lawmakers who opposed that legislation were missing from the list.
One name said to be on the list, Steve Allison of San Antonio, drew confusion since his campaign recently received a near $20,000 in-kind donation from Bonnen’s political action committee for polling, according to a Texas Ethics Commission filing.
Allison last week released a statement saying he had listened to the audio of the meeting and that “any confidence and trust” in Bonnen and Burrows “has been irreparably damaged by their own inexplicable and arrogant actions.”
The other Republican House members on the alleged list are:
How have political observers and House Republicans reacted?
After listening to audio of the June 12 meeting, Texas House members disputed Bonnen’s account.
Parker, a Flower Mound Republican, said he listened to the recording and that it was “very apparent that our Speaker and Caucus Chairman did engage in targeting specific members of the Republican Caucus.”
“I find this reckless ambition to be absolutely disgusting,” Parker, who formerly chaired the House GOP Caucus, said.
But several of Bonnen’s lieutenants in the House — who have not publicly said they listened to the tape — came to the speaker’s defense.
“I’ve made mistakes & Speaker Bonnen has made a mistake,” state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, said on Twitter. “This is a strong statement from our Speaker that exhibits humility, admits missteps & seeks to make/rebuild the trust that has been broken. This starts the healing to move the House forward to build on the 86th.”
State Rep. Jeff Leach, a Plano Republican, tweeted a similar statement, chalking up the speaker’s apology to “a great step forward for him and the Texas House.”
Bonnen and other House members have called on Sullivan to release the entire recording, which has not yet been made public.
What is the House General Investigating Committee and why is it taking action?
The committee has sweeping jurisdiction and holds subpoena power. A person who disobeys a subpoena by the committee may be cited for contempt or prosecuted for contempt, according to House rules, which were adopted at the beginning of the 86th legislative session in January.
In an Aug. 7 letter, Meyer said he planned to initiate an investigation on Aug. 12. He was responding to Collier, a Fort Worth Democrat, who had written an email to Meyer, requesting he “launch an immediate full investigation” into “whether not there has been a violation of any policy or rules that the committee is charged with overseeing.”
Specifically, Collier asked for an investigation into “the allegations relating to media credentials, as well as the circumstances and events surrounding a June 12, 2019 meeting, including any and all correspondence, statements and/or recordings related thereto.”
Update: October 2019
Analysis: Michael Quinn Sullivan’s torment of Dennis Bonnen could end next week
Next week could see the public airing of a secret recording that has had the Texas Capitol twisted in drama for most of the summer. With that, members of the Texas House can decide whether their speaker, Dennis Bonnen, made a big mistake or a little one.
Maybe Dennis Bonnen’s long summer of bad dreams is coming to an end.
Michael Quinn Sullivan, a political provocateur and a burr in the saddles of establishment Republicans, alleges Bonnen, the speaker of the Texas House, and state Rep. Dustin Burrows of Lubbock offered his organization House floor access during legislative sessions in return for help beating some incumbent Republicans in next year’s primaries. Now, Sullivan says (via an email newsletter to supporters) that he’s finally going to let the public hear his recording of the meeting where that took place.
That might well prove to be bad news for one or more of the three participants. Maybe for all of them. But it will end the innuendo and constant speculation fueled by Sullivan’s drip-drip-drip disclosures over the summer. He’s been playing the recording for select politicians and activists and leaving them to tell others what they heard, relying on his engineered hearsay to sow doubt among state representatives about their speaker’s trustworthiness.
Many have said that what they heard was close to Sullivan’s own account. Some have downplayed Bonnen’s comments as little more than insensitive and crass, the political blustering and plotting regularly heard from men in high places. But all of the witnesses were hand-selected by Sullivan and his crew, which leaves fair room for doubters and others who’d like to hear the evidence before passing final judgement.
Those include Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Bonnen allies who have, until this year, enjoyed Sullivan’s support and favor. The 86th legislative session this year wasn’t much to Sullivan’s liking, with a focus on school finance and property taxes that resulted in higher state spending on schools and no real guarantee that property taxes will fall. He was irked, and said so, that the Legislature didn’t ban cities and counties and other local governments from hiring lobbyists to help argue for them in Austin.
According to the hearsay accounts, that legislation was a prominent topic of the Bonnen-Sullivan-Burrows gabfest in June; the 10 Republicans allegedly targeted for replacement were among the Republicans who voted against that lobbying ban.
When Sullivan published his account in July, revealing that there was a meeting and adding his report on what was said there, he was languishing: The session hadn’t gone his way, his allies had become, in some measure, his foes, and the three state officials who led the way were being heralded as champions of good Republican government.
If that’s a little much, try this: Those three officials were happy with the results and set to brag about it.
After Sullivan added that he had a recording of the meeting and began his private listening sessions, bad news fouled that sunny climate. Bonnen said Sullivan should make the recording public. Abbott as well. Patrick joined them. The Texas Department of Public Safety, at the urging of the House General Investigating Committee, began an official inquiry that is still underway. The political cloudburst might not be getting much attention outside of the Texas Capitol complex, but on the inside, it has been the prevailing weather for months.
In emailing supporters his plan to release the recording next week, Sullivan even used a Dan Patrick quote from Mark Davis’ radio show in Dallas-Fort Worth.
“I don’t buy this ‘I don’t want to hurt the Republican Party by not putting out the tape.’ This drip-drip-drip is hurting,” Patrick told Davis. He and Sullivan sparred via Twitter, too.
“BTW, release the tape,” Patrick tweeted at Sullivan. “You are destroying our party.”
Sullivan replied: “What’s actually destroying the GOP is moral cowardice in which elected officials are unwilling to address the unethical behavior of other politicians.”
Whatever condition that relationship is in, Sullivan said Thursday he’ll release his only real piece of evidence next week — presumably uncut and unfiltered.
The timing is interesting. Sullivan says he’ll release the recording next week. Next week is also when the House Republican Caucus is meeting in Austin for the first time since members learned of the June meeting — and of Sullivan’s recording of it.
They and the rest of us will have heard the recording by the time they meet. And we’ll finally have a way to figure out who’s been telling the truth, who’s been lying and what the members of the Texas House are going to do about it.