In an email to the other 149 members of the Texas House of Representatives this week, Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s message was simple: “I’m sorry.”
Bonnen was responding to the backlash from a June 12 meeting he and House Republican Caucus Chairman Dustin Burrows had with hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan, CEO of “Empower Texans.”
In a series of blog posts following the meeting, Sullivan unveiled he secretly recorded their conversation, and the deal he said Bonnen offered to him.
Matt Mackowiak, chairman of the Travis County Republican Party, listened to the tape. He said it confirms Sullivan’s story.
“(Bonnen) offered media credentials to his organization, and expressed the desire to not have Empower Texans engage against Republicans in primaries,” Mackowiak said. “But if they were going to get engaged, Bonnen had a list of ten Republican members they could go after.”
Mackowiak said Bonnen also urged “Empower Texans” not to spend money in favor of his primary opponent.
“Empower Texans” has a history of campaigning against Republicans they don’t consider conservative enough.
At the end of the 86th legislative session, Bonnen said he would not tolerate incumbents campaigning against fellow House members in elections.
In his apology, Bonnen did not explicitly mention the alleged deal with Sullivan.
Manny Garcia, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, said the only way to ensure accountability is for the public to hear the tape.
“I think people on both sides of the aisle are fed up with the backroom deals,” Garcia said. “Things should be getting done inside the Texas Capitol, not schemes to abuse power, not schemes to protect and gain more power.”
Bonnen and other House members have called on Sullivan to release the entire recording, which has not yet been made public.
The Texas House General Investigative Committee will also look into the matter. The committee scheduled a hearing on August 12th “for consideration and action on the possible investigation into the circumstances, events, and allegations” surrounding the meeting.
The Texas Democratic Party sued Sullivan and his “unknown political committee” this week for access to the tape. Their lawsuit alleges that Bonnen, Burrows, and Sullivan committed campaign finance violations on the recording.
Garcia said “Texans deserve to know what happens in their government on their dime.”
“This was inside the Texas Capitol, this was during the Texas fundraising moratorium and there was a discussion about political money being used to accomplish the speaker’s political goals,” Garcia said. “There were some really troubling things that were said.”
Mackowiak said it was bad enough Bonnen was on the recording, but he’s more concerned with Burrows.
“Burrows is elected by the Republican caucus to lead the entire group of Republicans in the Texas House,” Mackowiak said. “For him to be scheming against a hand-picked list of ten members is particularly troubling.”
Mackowiak would not name the the ten members on the list. But he said they are among the 25 Republicans who voted against Senate Bill 29. That bill would have prevented the 21 largest counties in Texas from using taxpayer money to lobby lawmakers on legislation.
It’s unclear whether Sullivan plans to release the recording or when he would choose to do so.
Garcia, who has not listened to the tape, said the rumors of the “vile” and “derogatory” comments Bonnen made about certain lawmakers should be condemned.
“Trust is broken, and credibility has been broken,” Garcia said. “The people of Texas cannot support that and members should not support that.”
Bonnen was first elected to the House in 1997. Mackowiak said in his time in the House, Bonnen has built “strong”, “positive” relationships. But his future as remains uncertain as lawmakers gear up for election season.
“I have to wonder where the story’s headed, you just don’t know,” Mackowiak said. “You have the investigation, you have the question of the lawsuit but there’s parallel tracks here. He’s still trying to be speaker, raise money and focus on the Republicans holding the House in 2020.”