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Tape Shows Texas House Speaker Offered Advocacy Group Media Access In Exchange For Political Help

Speaker Dennis Bonnen during the Texas Fallen Heroes ceremony on May 25, 2019.
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 SpeakerDennis 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 GOP member was posted on Sullivan's website and the website of WBAP, a talk radio station in Dallas where Sullivan was scheduled to appear Tuesday morning.

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.”

Sullivan is CEO of Empower Texans, a group that's flooded with oil money and 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 some $4.7 million from the Empower Texans PAC.

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.

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 "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 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.

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 earlier 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 Bell, 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: Parker.

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. "We would be thrilled to see Clardy, somebody else, come back in that district."

The members mentioned are Steve Allison of San Antonio, Trent Ashby of Lufkin, Ernest Bailes of Shepherd, Keith Bell of Forney, Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, Drew Darby of San Angelo, Kyle Kacal of College Station, Stan Lambert of Abilene, John Raney of College Station, Phil Stephenson of Wharton and Tan Parker of Flower Mound. All are Republicans.

Sullivan first disclosed that the meeting happened in late July, 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 state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, 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 convince Sullivan to stop trying to unseat certain Republicans in the primaries.

To the offering of media credentials, Bonnen has also told House members, specifically in an email to them 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."

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.”

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 "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.