*Editor's note: A version of this story was originally published Aug. 1, 2019. It has been updated throughout ahead of an Aug. 12, 2019 meeting of the House General Investigating Committee.
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 that was obtained by The Texas Tribune, 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:
- Trent Ashby of Lufkin
- Ernest Bailes of Shepherd
- Kyle Kacal of College Station
- Stan Lambert of Abilene
- John Raney of College Station
- Phil Stephenson of Wharton
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 House General Investigating Committee is a five-person committee, chaired by state Rep. Morgan Meyer, a Dallas Republican. State Rep. Nicole Collier serves as vice chair.
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."