Politics & Government

‘Let’s go after these Republicans’: Speaker Bonnen targets members in secret recording

In a June meeting, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen propositioned the CEO of Empower Texans to target Republican House members and, in exchange, extended the possibility of granting long-sought after press credentials, according to a secret recording made public Tuesday.

Michael Quinn Sullivan, the conservative activist and CEO of the political advocacy group Empower Texans, revealed in late July that he secretly recorded a June 12 meeting between himself, Bonnen and Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Republican from Lubbock who was the House Republican Caucus’s chairman at the time.

Sullivan had alleged that Bonnen offered writers from Empower Texans’ news site previously denied House press credentials in exchange for the group’s firepower to target 10 Republican incumbents in their re-election bids.

Sullivan threatened to release the audio unless Bonnen, a Republican from Angleton, recanted his denials of the allegations. It’s been nearly two and half months since, and after selectively sharing the recording, Sullivan posted the audio online on Empower Texans’ news site and radio station WBAP.

Speaking to talk show host Chris Salcedo on WBAP Tuesday morning, Sullivan reiterated that he made the recording “to protect myself,” and attempted to resolve things privately first in a letter sent to Bonnen’s office in late June.

The audio largely supports Sullivan’s allegations, which have roiled the Texas House, resulting in calls from the state’s top leaders and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for the recording to be released in full. The allegations have also spawned a lawsuit filed by the Texas Democratic Party, an investigation by the Texas Rangers and led to Burrows’ resignation as chairman of the House Republican Caucus.

“I’m trying to win in 2020 in November,” Bonnen can be heard saying on the 64-minute recording. “If you need some primaries to fight in, I will leave and Dustin will tell you some that we would love it if you fought in them, not that you need our permission.”

Democrats gained 12 seats in the Texas House last year — nine away from claiming majority — and on the recording, Bonnen says that no matter how Republicans fare in 2020, “if I still have the same 10 moderate Republicans who don’t want to help on anything, I’m still unable to do what you and I would want done.”

Sullivan’s allegations came just two months after Bonnen issued a warning to House members in May: if they campaigned against their colleagues, they would face repercussions.

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On the recording, Bonnen goes on to suggest that he could ensure writers of the group’s news site, Texas Scorecard, receive House press credentials after their requests had previously been denied. Bonnen also says he could strip credentials from Scott Braddock, the editor of the political insider newsletter Quorum Report, who Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick banned from the Senate floor this past session.

“If we can make this work, I’ll put your guys on the floor next session,” Bonnen says. “I’ll do what Patrick did, I’ll take Braddock off. I think it’s a value to have your guys out there, to be truthful.”

In a statement shortly after the recording’s release, Bonnen didn’t address specific comments, but stressed its publication would allow the House to move forward.

“I have repeatedly called for the recording to be released because it will be immediately clear that no laws were broken,” Bonnen said in the statement. “This was nothing more than a political discussion — the problem is that I had it with that guy. 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.”

Burrows’ statement later Tuesday afternoon echoed Bonnen’s.

“I’m glad the audio has been released, as it should have been months ago. I now intend on focusing on what is important: passing conservative legislation for future generations and the needs of West Texans,” Burrows said.

‘Let’s go after these Republicans’

As the meeting progresses, Bonnen begins to raise the names of Republican lawmakers like Reps. Travis Clardy and Phil Stephenson, who he says he won’t support, but refrains from mentioning more.

“I don’t want to go any farther down that list,” Bonnen says, later noting that Burrows will show Sullivan “the list of who we hope someone will show up and we hope you will fund.”

“I don’t need you to praise anyone. I would like you to tone down the pops at people that are decent members,” Bonnen says. “And let’s unload on those that we need to get rid of.”

“I would love to have that list,” Sullivan replies.

“I’m going to walk out and talk to Boys State,” Bonnen says in reference to another meeting on his calendar. “I’ll let him work with you on that because I probably shouldn’t do that.”

Shortly before leaving, Bonnen says: “Let’s go after these Republicans that — and I’m not kidding when it comes to 2020 if we’re successful and we gain maybe one or two or three Republican seats, we beat some of these liberal pieces of s---, take people out, and we maybe flip a couple of these primaries, better R’s — kick my ass if we’re not doing a better job.”

After a door closes and Bonnen seems to have left the room, Burrows says taxpayer-funded lobbying is “the benchmark” for next session, after it failed to pass this year. He goes through the names of lawmakers who voted against the proposal, assessing whether they could be swayed.

Sullivan, who asked if he could write names down, reads off who he has based on Burrows’ assessment.

“OK. So you’d say Allison, Ashby, Bailes. Bell?” Sullivan asks.

“Leave him alone. He’s just a dumb freshman,” Burrows says of Rep. Keith Bell, R-Forney.

The eventual list of Republican targets include Reps. Tan Parker of Flower Mound, Steve Allison of San Antonio, Trent Ashby of Lufkin, Ernest Bailes of Shepard, Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, Drew Darby of San Angelo, Kyle Kacal and John Raney of College Station, Stan Lambert of Abilene, and Phil Stephenson of Wharton.

“OK, good targets,” Sullivan says, before the two go on to discuss priorities for next session.

Disparaging Comments

Bonnen also makes comments about a handful of Democratic members throughout the recording, saying he “can’t stand” Ana-Maria Ramos, a Democrat from Richardson who is a plaintiff in the Democratic Party’s lawsuit, and that Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton, is “vile.”

Beckley, who had previously taken issue with Bonnen’s lack of a quick apology, told the Texas Tribune Tuesday Bonnen should resign.

“Jon Rosenthal makes my skin crawl. He’s a piece of s---,” Bonnen says of the Democrat from Houston. Bonnen then recounts a conversation with his chief of staff after meeting with Rosenthal.

“I said, ‘What did you think of him?’ And he goes, ‘Well, his wife’s going to be really pissed when she learns he’s gay.’ I said yep,” Bonnen says to laughter.

Rosenthal previously said he forgave Bonnen, and in a statement Tuesday stressed he would remain focused on his constituents while separate investigations into the allegations progress.

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On the recording, Bonnen also touts recruiting a potential candidate to go against Rep. James Talarico, a Democrat from Round Rock. On Twitter Tuesday, Talarico said he considered Bonnen a mentor, but now “we need leaders who put people over politics.”

Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, and chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said in a statement that Bonnen’s “sexist” and “homophobic” comments about Democratic members “are disgraceful and unbefitting of the high office he holds.”

“The Democratic Caucus will hold a previously scheduled meeting tomorrow and we will discuss this situation then,” Turner said. “Speaking only for myself, I personally believe these revelations are incompatible with Mr. Bonnen serving another term as Speaker.”

The majority of Republican members were publicly silent after the recording’s release. Reps. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, and Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, called for Bonnen’s resignation Tuesday.

Inquiries underway

Sullivan’s publication of the recording came just hours before a scheduled hearing in Travis County District Court, in which a judge was set to hear arguments on the Texas Democratic Party’s motion for the recording to be presented as part of the party’s lawsuit. Filed in August, the lawsuit alleges the June meeting resulted in the creation of an unregistered political action committee and violated a slew of state election laws.

“Speaker Bonnen’s apology is the latest attempt to cover up that he abused his office,” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement Tuesday. “We will continue to seek the truth and get down to the bottom of what exactly happened in our Texas Capitol.”

Meanwhile, the Texas Rangers Public Integrity Unit moved forward with its inquiry into the allegations last week, delivering letters to House members’ Capitol offices in Austin asking them to share evidence relevant to the investigation before Oct. 17 — the same day the House Republican Caucus is scheduled to meet for a retreat.

This story was originally published October 15, 2019 9:25 AM.

Tessa Weinberg is a state government for the Star-Telegram. Based in Austin, she covers all things policy and politics with a focus on Tarrant County. She previously covered the Missouri legislature where her reporting prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. A California native and graduate of the University of Missouri, she’s made her way across the U.S. and landed in Texas in May 2019.
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