House committee hearing into Bonnen-Sullivan meeting opens Monday

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Texas Capitol
Photo by Davidlohr Bueso (CC BY 2.0)

The Texas House General Investigating Committee is scheduled Monday to begin taking testimony concerning a July 12 meeting involving Speaker Dennis Bonnen that has metastasized into a statewide political scandal.

Committee Chairman Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas, scheduled the public hearing at the request of vice-chair Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth. The notice calls for an airing of the “circumstances, events, and allegations” surrounding the meeting in which Bonnen offered House press credentials to Michael Quinn Sullivan in exchange for his working against 10 incumbent Republicans in the 2020 primary.

Not waiting until next week, the Texas Democratic Party and a freshman House Democrat are suing Sullivan, Bonnen and a third participant, Dustin Burrows, chair of the GOP Caucus, contending their private meeting constituted an illegal political campaign committee.

The lawsuit filed Thursday in Travis County district court alleges that Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos, D-Richardson, was also mentioned during the meeting. Sullivan, CEO of Empower Texans, the state’s most prominent conservative advocacy group, revealed after the session that he had secretly taped it.

Ramos and the other Democratic plaintiffs are asking that the tape — which none of them has heard — and all communications between the principals and other parties involved in the July 12 meeting be produced for the court.

“Texans deserve to know what happens in their government on their dime, and that elected officials are getting their job done, not scheming to abuse power,” Gilberto Hinojosa, the state Democratic Party chair, said in a release on the party’s website. “Texans are fed up with back-room deals and unaccountable politicians who put the pursuit of power over everything. These accounts of Speaker Bonnen and Republican Chair Burrows comments show they don’t give a damn about the needs of Texans or the respect due to their fellow members elected by the people.”

In the days since Sullivan publicly revealed first the meeting and then the existence of the tape, multiple elected officials, handpicked by Sullivan, have listened to it and confirmed Sullivan’s version of the meeting.

Bonnen at first issued an emphatic denial that a target list of fellow House Republicans existed. He challenged Sullivan to make the full audio of the meeting public. Bonnen, however, also asked that Burrows, R-Lubbock, not speak publicly about the meeting. Burrows allegedly heard on tape outlining the deal with Sullivan, has so far complied.

And for a second time in a week, Bonnen emailed an apology to House members that makes no mention of his alleged offer of a seat at the House press table in return for political favors:

Dear Members, 

I’m sorry. I was stupid to take a meeting with an individual who has worked hard to divide our House. It was a mistake.

I said terrible things that are embarrassing to the members, to the House, and to me personally. You know me well enough to know I say things with no filter. That’s not an excuse for the hurtful things I said or the discussion that was had.

Once again, I call for the release of the entire unedited recording so the House is no longer held hostage, and we can begin to heal.

I have reached out to many of you, and I want to visit with all of you. I hope I have the chance to apologize to you personally.

I am truly sorry from the bottom of my heart. I ask for your forgiveness, and I hope to rebuild your trust.

— Dennis

On his Twitter feed, Sullivan has kept the focus squarely on Bonnen’s offer, calling Republicans who continue to support Bonnen or who have called for the party to move past the controversy “cowardly and sycophantic.”

The Texas Monitor earlier this week emailed Sullivan requesting to listen to his recording. He did not respond.

The General Investigating Committee is made up of five Bonnen appointees: Meyer, Collier, Matt Krause, R-Arlington; Candy Noble, R-Allen; and Leo Pacheco, D-San Antonio.

The panel has the authority to subpoena witnesses and ask for the prosecution of anyone who ignores a subpoena, according to the Texas Government Code. The committee may also inspect the records, documents and files that would include correspondence between elected officials such as Bonnen and Burrows, according to the code.

Meyer has made no mention of whether the committee will ask Sullivan to provide a copy of his recording to be played in a public hearing. Meyer did not return a call from The Texas Monitor requesting comment.

It also isn’t clear if the committee will examine whether Bonnen broke the law by offering press credentials — public property — in exchange for something of personal benefit.  Attorneys with government and political experience told The Texas Monitor that Bonnen might have violated the abuse of office chapter in the Texas Penal Code.

Political allies of Sullivan’s have for more than a week continued a social media drumbeat on Bonnen’s alleged deal-making. State Rep. Steven Allison of San Antonio, one of the 10 legislators allegedly on Bonnen’s hit list, released a letter Wednesday saying, “Any confidence and trust in the leadership of Speaker Bonnen and Representative Burrows has been irreparably damaged by their own inexplicable and arrogant actions.”

Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, another lawmaker allegedly on the list, is no Empower Texans ally, but was a challenger of Bonnen’s for speaker of the House. After being invited by Sullivan to listen to the recording, Parker issued a written statement. 

“It was very apparent that our speaker and caucus chairman did engage in targeting specific members of the Republican caucus,” Parker wrote. “I find this reckless ambition to be absolutely disgusting. Their actions directly contradict the bylaws and culture of our Caucus. The disparaging commentary that was also heard was the epitome of disrespect and a clear attack on the values of the Republican Party and the integrity we have established in the Texas House.”

Several Empower Texans favorites in the House have called on Bonnen to resign. “I believe the healing process for the House will only begin with an honest statement from Speaker Bonnen and his resignation, not drawn-out political theater in the House General Investigating Committee,” state Rep. Kyle Biedermann, R-Fredricksburg, said in a statement on Twitter Thursday.

At least as many Republican House members, past allies of Bonnen’s, took to social media Thursday asking that House members accept his apology.

“Admitting a mistake is difficult,” Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, wrote.  “Forgiving someone for that mistake is often more difficult. Speaker Bonnen’s sincere apology is a good thing. It’s time to forgive, so we can all move forward.”

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

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