In Texas, they are calling it the case of “The Speaker and the Creeper.”
The political imbroglio started last month, when Michael Quinn Sullivan, a conservative pit bull who routinely antagonizes establishment politicians, accused the Republican House speaker, Dennis Bonnen, of offering his organization coveted House media credentials if it would work to defeat 10 incumbent House members from Mr. Bonnen’s own party.
Mr. Bonnen denied it, and the bombshell was initially greeted with some skepticism. Why would one of the state’s top politicians court a back-room deal — to undermine his own bench — with a man Texas Monthly recently described as “one of the biggest snakes in Texas politics”?
Except there was a tape.
Now Mr. Sullivan’s accusations are at the heart of the biggest scandal to hit Texas in years, one that is throwing the state’s Republican-led House of Representatives into turmoil and threatening to bring down the speaker.
Mr. Sullivan had rocked the Capitol with his initial accusations about the purported offer, but with his declaration that he had secretly recorded the June meeting with Mr. Bonnen and the House Republican Caucus chairman, Dustin Burrows, the claims suddenly had traction.
Mr. Sullivan has not yielded to demands for the tape’s release but instead has permitted lawmakers who felt they were “impacted” by what it contained to listen to the recording in the presence of his lawyer. Those who have done so say they were stunned to learn that it confirms Mr. Sullivan’s account.
After initially denying the accusations, Mr. Bonnen sent out an emailed apology to House members about the “terrible things” he said during the meeting, but his future as leader of the 150-member House remains uncertain. The House General Investigating Committee voted unanimously on Monday to order a Texas Rangers investigation into the alleged quid pro quo offer that raises the specter of bribery.
Mr. Burrows, who also chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, stepped down as caucus chairman in a resignation letter accepted by the caucus executive board on Thursday night, his successor, State Representative Stephanie Klick, said on Friday. Representative Klick served as executive vice chair and was automatically elevated to the chairmanship under the group’s bylaws.
The scandal abruptly terminated the cooperative atmosphere that characterized the recently ended 140-day legislative session. Mr. Bonnen joined Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the presiding officer of the Senate, in leading lawmakers away from culture war debates of previous sessions to enact comprehensive school finance reform and property tax relief.
To observers, one of the most baffling aspects of the meeting was Mr. Bonnen’s willingness to approach a political firebrand who has had a perpetually contentious, if not outright hostile, relationship with the House leadership. Mr. Bonnen told members in his apology that he was “stupid to take a meeting with an individual who has worked hard to divide our House.”
Mr. Sullivan — or MQS, as he is often called — has been an undisputed force in Texas politics for more than a decade, a leading architect of tea party-aligned efforts to push the state’s Republican power center further and further to the right.
His Austin-based Empower Texans, funded by the billionaire Midland oilman Tim Dunn, has spent more than $9 million in state races since 2008, often targeting Republican incumbents deemed by the group to be too moderate and out of touch with grass-roots Texans. A place on an Empower Texans’ hit list often ends with a bad outcome at election time.
“I’m not overly concerned with what politicians think of me,” Mr. Sullivan told The Dallas Morning News in 2011. “If they do the right thing only because they’re scared, that’s fine. Let’s make them scared.”
On his Twitter account, Mr. Sullivan, 49, a 6-foot, 4-inch former journalist, succinctly describes himself as a “Husband, father, Eagle Scout, Christian, conservative, Aggie. 5th-Gen Texan. Leftists call me a ‘far-right warlord,’ ‘far-right mandarin,’ & ‘flibbertigibbet.’”
After graduating from Texas A&M, Mr. Sullivan was a small-town newspaper reporter and wrote for the journal Texas Republican. He moved into politics in the mid-1990s when Ron Paul hired him as a congressional aide in Washington. He returned to Texas to become vice president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a powerhouse conservative think tank. Mr. Dunn, the West Texas oil executive who serves as vice chairman of the foundation’s board, named Mr. Sullivan to head Empower Texans when he created the conservative nonprofit in 2006.
The organization has both paralleled and advanced the tea party movement across Texas and until recently was instrumental in replacing moderate Republican incumbents with conservative outsiders who have often rebelled against the House leadership. Mr. Sullivan steadfastly — and unsuccessfully — pushed for the ouster of the moderate House Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio from the time Mr. Straus became leader in 2009 until he voluntarily stepped aside at the start of this year, opening the door to Mr. Bonnen’s speakership.
After a nearly decade-long series of election successes that took out several high-level Republican House members, Empower Texans stumbled in 2018 when only about a third of its candidates won their races.
Independent analysts nevertheless say Mr. Sullivan has clearly influenced the rightward drift of Texas politics. “It’s big rhetoric with a big stick,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political-science professor at the University of Houston. “He’s got enough clout ideologically to move the Republican Party and he’s got the backing from big-money groups to be able to give him the chance to back it up.”
Mr. Sullivan did not respond to requests for an interview but told Twitter followers that the “#FakeNews @nytimes keeps pestering me to participate in their attack-profile of me. No, I won’t waste my time being interviewed by your leftist rag.”
Those who have been on the receiving end of Mr. Sullivan’s tactics accuse Empower Texans of distorting their records and peppering their districts with emails aimed at turning constituents against them.
“The reasons they were mad at me is because I would weigh the evidence and make an intelligent decision rather than listening to them and doing whatever they told me to do,” said former Representative Todd Smith, a seven-term Republican House member and committee chairman who was defeated in 2012 when he ran for a State Senate seat in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Acting on a 2012 complaint lodged by Vicki Truitt and Jim Keffer, who were then state representatives, the Texas Ethics Commission ruled in 2014 that Mr. Sullivan acted as a lobbyist because he communicated directly with lawmakers, fining the conservative activist the maximum $10,000. Mr. Sullivan has appealed the ruling and contends that Empower Texans serves as a news media entity providing information to citizens and that he is therefore not subject to lobbying rules. He lost the latest round in June when the Texas Supreme Court refused to dismiss the case.
Empower Texans has also figured prominently in legislative discussions to rein in so-called dark money since the tax-exempt nonprofit is not required to disclose its contributors. The group is one of the bigger benefactors to political candidates in Texas, which does not restrict the size of contributions.
Empower Texans gave $9.2 million to 685 Republican candidates from 2008 to 2018, according to the National Institute on Money in Politics in Helena, Mont. “They are definitely players in the state,” the institute’s managing director, Denise Roth Barber, said. “They distribute their money very, very widely.”
The big question many are trying to answer now in the Texas capital is why Mr. Bonnen would have approached a group about which he has been openly dismissive.
After Mr. Sullivan criticized the latest “amazing LOSER #Texlege session” on Twitter, Mr. Bonnen brushed it off. “They speak only for themselves,” he told reporters. “They aren’t worth responding to. The reality of it is, if we passed every pro-life bill filed in the history of the state they would say we have not done enough. You will never please or appease those folks and I’m sure as hell not going to waste my time trying.”
That was at the end of May. Then came the meeting in the speaker’s office, in June. Mr. Sullivan said he was expecting a “tongue-lashing” for not supporting what he called the “lackluster results” of the legislative session, but instead, according to his account, he was asked by the House speaker to refrain from further criticizing the just-ended legislative session, leave a select group of Republicans alone and target 10 others.
In exchange, Mr. Sullivan said, he was offered press credentials for Texas Scorecard, the media arm of Empower Texans — though the House speaker has since pointed out he would not have the authority to grant such credentials.
Cal Jillson, a political-science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said Mr. Bonnen may have been seeking to soften the “enmity” between Republican factions and head off “incoming fire” from Empower Texans and affiliated groups in the future. “What Sullivan did was lay a trap for him,” Professor Jillson said.
In a July 29 press statement before Mr. Sullivan revealed that he had taped the conversations, Mr. Bonnen said that he had “one simple reason for taking the meeting — I saw it as an opportunity to protect my Republican colleagues and prevent us from having to waste millions of dollars defending ourselves against Empower Texans’ destructive primary attacks, as we have had to do in the past several cycles.”
Mr. Bonnen has said he supported the Texas Rangers investigation and has called on Mr. Sullivan to release the statement “in its entirety.”
Texas is no stranger to scandal, and a few old hands around the Capitol still remember the granddaddy of them all — the Sharpstown stock fraud scandal of 1970-72, which centered on quid pro quo stock purchases that resulted in charges against more than two dozen current and former state officials and led to a wholesale turnover in state government.
The latest investigation, which is becoming known as “Bonnenghazi” or “Bonnghazi,” will determine whether the current speaker hangs on to power or is forced to the sideline, further casting Republicans in disarray in a race for a new leader and perhaps even giving an opening to Democrats in their perennial efforts to regain control of the House for the first time in nearly two decades.
Said Professor Jillson of S.M.U., “This one is still playing out.”