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House Speaker Bonnen Offered Empower Texas Access For Favors

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen likely broke a campaign finance law when he met with Empower Texans guru Michael Quinn Sullivan.
Marjorie Kamys Cotera
Texas Tribune
Speaker Dennis Bonnen during the Texas Fallen Heroes ceremony on May 25, 2019

During a June conversation at the Texas Capitol, Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen urged hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan to target members of their own party in the 2020 primaries and suggested he could get Sullivan’s group media access to the House floor, according to a secret recording of the conversation released Tuesday.

Bonnen could also be heard speaking disparagingly about multiple Democrats, calling one House member “vile” and suggesting that another’s “wife’s gonna be really pissed when she learns he’s gay.”

The 64-minute recording of Sullivan's June meeting with Bonnen and another top House Republican, then-GOP caucus chair Dustin Burrows, was posted on Sullivan's website and the website of WBAP, a talk radio station in Dallas on which Sullivan appeared Tuesday morning. The recording largely aligned with Sullivan's initial description of that June 12 meeting — and with what certain Republicans who listened to the audio before it was public had described.

While its release prompted immediate outcry from Democrats and silence from Republicans, Bonnen said in a statement that the audio makes clear he did nothing criminally wrong in the conversation, adding that the "House can finally move on." The Texas Rangers are investigating the matter at the request of the House General Investigating Committee.

Roughly nine minutes into the recording, after discussing Sullivan’s recent trip to Europe, Bonnen tells Sullivan he’s “trying to win in 2020 in November.”

“Is there any way that for 2020 we sort of say … let’s not spend millions of dollars fighting in primaries when we need to spend millions of dollars trying to win in November,” Bonnen says. “I wanted to see if we could try and figure that out. … If you need some primaries to fight in — I will leave and Dustin will tell you some we’d love if you fought in. Not that you need our permission.”

Roughly five minutes later, the speaker said, “Let me tell you what I can do for you. Real quick, you need to hear what I want to do for you.”

“I don’t need anything,” Sullivan responded.

“Well, no you do,” Bonnen said. “We can make this work. I’ll put your guys on the floor next session.”

“Or take them off,” Sullivan suggested.

Amid laughs, Bonnen said, "Here’s what I won’t do. I’ll do what [Lt. Gov. Dan] Patrick did — and I’ll take Braddock off” the House floor, referring to Scott Braddock, a reporter for the Capitol insider publication Quorum Report.

Sullivan is the chief executive of Empower Texans, a group that's flooded with oil money and is a unique tangle of political lobbying firm, news outlet and deep-pocketed political action committee. The group is perhaps best known for playing heavily in Republican primary elections, targeting Republicans it considers "squishy" and backing more hardline conservatives. In the 2018 election cycle, candidates and PACs reported receiving about $4.7 million from the Empower Texans PAC.

Empower Texans, a longtime critic of House leadership, has sought to gain media credentials to the floor of the lower chamber, where members of the press can roam to speak with staffers and legislators. After the group was denied access for the 2019 legislative session because of ties to a lobbying organization, it sued the House Administration Committee’s chairman over it, arguing the rejection was “unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.”

Before Bonnen made his offer, he also disparaged a number of House Democrats. The speaker said state Rep. Jon Rosenthal, a Houston Democrat, “makes my skin crawl” and is “a piece of shit.” Bonnen, after saying he's "begging this is all confidential," then recounted a meeting with the freshman, after which he asked his chief of staff, Gavin Massingill, what he thought about the new House member.

“Massingill said it best,” Bonnen recalled. “Well, his wife’s gonna be really pissed when she learns he’s gay.”

The room dissolved in laughter before Bonnen turned to discuss other members of the lower chamber’s minority party.

"We've got Michelle Beckley, who's vile," he said, referring to the freshman Democrat from Carrollton who unseated a Republican in 2018. He exhorted Sullivan to help target these Democrats in competitive districts.

Beckley said an interview Tuesday that "it is hurtful" to hear Bonnen call her names, and that though he had apologized, it did not feel sincere — especially because he had told her and other Democrats he would not target incumbents in 2020. He should resign as speaker, she said.

Ultimately, she said, the entire experience has made her more determined than ever to win reelection.

"All this tape is going to do is make me fight harder," Beckley said.

Sullivan first disclosed in late July that the June meeting happened, saying that Bonnen offered his advocacy group, Empower Texans, media credentials on the House floor if the group targeted 10 Republican members of the Texas House. Bonnen and Burrows pushed back against those allegations, though the speaker later apologized for saying "terrible things" during the meeting and Burrows resigned as chair of the House GOP Caucus. Both Bonnen and Burrows said the point of that June meeting was to persuade Sullivan to stop trying to unseat certain Republicans in the primaries.

To the offering of media credentials, Bonnen told House members in an email after Sullivan's allegations surfaced in late July, that he "knew, at the end of the day, the House rules — not the Speaker — determine who gets media credentials."

About halfway through the conversation, Bonnen reiterated to Sullivan that Burrows would list members to potentially target in the 2020 primaries, saying he had "some folks if you want to go pop."

"He'll show you the list of who we hope someone will show up" to challenge, Bonnen said.

Roughly 45 minutes into the conversation, after Bonnen apparently leaves the room, Burrows begins speaking, telling Sullivan that banning taxpayer-funded lobbying, a conservative priority that failed this year, will be the "benchmark for next session." Burrows promises that the House will "spend the entire interim trying to expose what those dollars are being spent on" and building public support for the cause before giving it another try in 2021.

Then Burrows references the failed vote in the House on banning taxpayer-funded lobbying and provides his analysis of which GOP members he thinks can be persuaded to reconsider their opposition next session. After ticking through a number of members who voted against it, Burrows says, "Those are pretty much the ones that I don't know how to turn back to vote for the next time."

"So you'd say Allison, Ashby, Bailes, Bell ... Clardy, Darby, Kacal, Lambert, Raney, Stephenson?" Sullivan asks.

When Sullivan mentions state Rep. Keith Bell, R-Forney, Burrows interjects: "Leave him alone — he's just a dumb freshman."

Burrows otherwise sounds OK with the list and asks Sullivan to add one more member: state Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound.

In that exchange, Burrows did not explicitly endorse primary challenges against the 10 members but made clear in at least one case that he didn't want to see one of them return.

"Clardy's the ringleader of all opposition," Burrows tells Sullivan, referring to state Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches. "We would be thrilled to see Clardy, somebody else, come back in that district."

In addition to Parker, Bell and Clardy, the members mentioned are Steve Allison of San Antonio, Trent Ashby of Lufkin, Ernest Bailes of Shepherd, Drew Darby of San Angelo, Kyle Kacal of College Station, Stan Lambert of Abilene, John Raney of College Station and Phil Stephenson of Wharton. All are Republicans.

Though Bonnen appeared to be absent while Burrows rattled off names, the speaker himself had seemed to allude to the same group early on in the conversation, explicitly mentioning the number 10.

"If I still have the same 10 moderate Republicans who don't want to help on anything, I'm still unable to do what you and I would want done," Bonnen told Sullivan about 11 minutes into the conversation.

On Tuesday, after Sullivan's recording was released, Bonnen said in a statement that he had repeatedly called for the audio to be made public "because it will be immediately clear that no laws were broken." He didn't dispute the recording's authenticity.

"This was nothing more than a political discussion — the problem is that I had it with that guy," Bonnen said in a statement. "My colleagues have always deserved the facts and context this recording provides, and with clear evidence now disproving allegations of criminal wrongdoing, the House can finally move on.”

Burrows in his own statement later Tuesday said he was happy the recording had been released and that he now planned to focus "on what is important: passing conservative legislation for future generations and the needs of West Texans."

The recording’s release promises to reignite the political storm that surrounded Bonnen after Sullivan went public with his story. Until Tuesday, there had been a mixed bag of reviews on the allegations — though essentially every Republican or Democrat who was asked about it called on Sullivan to release the recording. A number of Republicans who had listened to the audio prior to Tuesday backed Sullivan’s version of the story. A few had even called on the speaker to resign, or issued statements that stopped just short of doing so.

Meanwhile, roughly a dozen of Bonnen’s top lieutenants in the House had come out in support of him, saying in carefully worded tweets that the lower chamber could begin to heal after the speaker apologized for saying “terrible things.”

Now, months after his first session as speaker was widely lauded by members, Bonnen’s support could be tested. Later this week, both the House Democratic and House Republican caucuses are set to be in Austin for already-scheduled meetings. Sullivan’s recording is all but certain to take center stage in conversations among members.

By Tuesday afternoon, Republican members hadn't yet weighed in, while a number of Democrats either in leadership positions or mentioned in the recording issued statements condemning the speaker for his comments.

State Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat who serves as chair of the caucus, had perhaps the most notable statement, saying that, for him personally, the “revelations are incompatible with Mr. Bonnen serving another term as Speaker.”

State Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, who Bonnen discussed recruiting a GOP challenger against, said “the Speaker has lost his way” and that “Texas deserves leaders who will put people over politics.”

Minutes after the tape came out, Sullivan called into Dallas radio host Chris Salcedo's show to discuss it. He reiterated his reasoning for secretly recording the meeting — he thought Bonnen might lie about it afterward — and he said he did not initially reveal he had the recording because he was perhaps embarrassed but also wanted to give Bonnen the "chance to make things right" on his own.

Sullivan emphasized that he thought the most damning part of the tape was the alleged quid pro quo. Bonnen, Sullivan said, "offered to take an official government action in exchange if I would just go after his political foes."

Sullivan declined to make predictions about Bonnen's political fate but said he hopes the Republican caucus "understands they need to a better job of finding men and women of integrity" to serve in such a high-ranking position. Bonnen, Sullivan added, "needs to do some serious soul-searching."

Alexa Ura and Alex Samuels contributed reporting.

"Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen offered media access to Empower Texans, suggested it target certain Republicans, recording shows" was first published at  by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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