A member of the Texas House who listened to a recording of a meeting that’s shaken up the Legislature said late Wednesday that House Speaker Dennis Bonnen “was not truthful” in denying that he offered a list of 10 members for a hardline conservative group to politically target.
“What I derived from the audio tape — it’s very clear — is that Speaker Bonnen was not truthful about a list not being provided,” state Rep. Steve Toth, a Republican from The Woodlands, told The Texas Tribune after he listened to a recording of Michael Quinn Sullivan, CEO of Empower Texans, visiting Bonnen’s office on June 12.
The recording has not yet been released to the public. Sullivan alleged that Bonnen and state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, offered Sullivan’s group long-denied media credentials to the lower chamber in exchange for politically targeting 10 GOP lawmakers. According to Sullivan, Bonnen left the room before Burrows handed over a list of 10 members for the activist’s well-funded political action committee to target.
Bonnen has given a far different accounting of the meeting and has publicly declared that he looks forward to supporting all incumbents in their reelection bids. Before Toth spoke with the Tribune, Bonnen had called on Sullivan to release the entire recording.
“Mr. Sullivan,” Bonnen said in a statement, “release your recording. Release it in its entirety.”
Toth, who was not on the alleged 10-member list, told the Tribune that, according to the recording, “clearly, a list was referenced, over and over and over again. Multiple times.”
“Honestly, I was caught off guard,” said Toth, who was elected to the lower chamber in 2018 and was among the initial 109 members whose pledges of support allowed Bonnen to become speaker. Toth, who also served in the House from 2013 to 2015, has received roughly $55,000 in donations from Empower Texans PAC or Texans for Fiscal Responsibility PAC, another entity tied with the group, since 2012, filings with the Texas Ethics Commission show.
“I have been a supporter of the speaker since day one,” he said. “I love Dennis. I didn’t believe any of this. I was shocked. I am discouraged to see the light it put him in and the light it put on the Republican Party.”
Bonnen has denied Sullivan’s characterization of the meeting. In a statement released Monday, Bonnen said that “at no point in our conversation was Sullivan provided with a list of target Members.” Burrows, who chairs the House GOP Caucus, has remained silent since Sullivan first published his allegations last week.
On Wednesday, Sullivan revealed he recorded the meeting to protect himself “from legal jeopardy” and to protect his family and Empower Texans.
“Speaker Bonnen and Rep. Burrows must recant their false claims. All of them. Immediately,” Sullivan wrote Wednesday on the website Texas Scorecard, which operates under Empower Texans. “If they do not, I believe I will be obligated to release the recording — in whole or in part, I haven’t decided yet — so as to set straight the record they have tried to contort.”
In an email to House Republicans the day after Sullivan’s allegations surfaced, Bonnen disputed Sullivan’s version of events. Sullivan said Wednesday that he will allow “Republican legislators, party officials, and conservative movement leaders who may feel they are impacted by the recording” to listen to the audio in the presence of his lawyer.
State Rep. Travis Clardy, a Nacogdoches Republican on the 10-member list, and Toth had arranged to listen to the recording Wednesday night in Austin, according to three people familiar with the matter. (Clardy’s arrangement was first reported by The Dallas Morning News; Clardy told the paper he would listen to the tape.) Clardy didn’t respond to requests for comment Wednesday night, though he told Quorum Report that “there was nothing that I heard that was different than the account [Sullivan] provided.”
Several other members on the list have plans to listen to the recording as soon as Thursday, the sources said.
Sullivan also said he met earlier this week with Texas GOP Chair James Dickey to disclose he recorded the meeting and to encourage the party leader “to take action cleaning up the GOP’s messy House.” A spokesperson for Dickey confirmed to The Texas Tribune on Wednesday that Dickey met with Sullivan before heading out of town for a political meeting.
Since Sullivan first lobbed his allegations last Thursday, House Republicans have been grappling with how to handle it. Some were skeptical; Sullivan and his group have built a reputation for using sometimes controversial tactics to help carry out their agenda — both on the campaign trail and inside the state Capitol.
Others, meanwhile, have privately grown frustrated with how the speaker’s office has responded to the allegations — and how Burrows, especially as caucus chair, has remained silent. Earlier this week, one House Republican, Ernest Bailes of Shepherd, formally requested Burrows to weigh in on the matter.
“The deft silence only solidifies truth within the allegations,” Bailes wrote to his caucus in an email, which the Tribune obtained.