Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen “likely” violated state law during a private meeting June 12 at the capitol, but the committee that ordered an investigation of the incident declined to recommend his prosecution.
The Texas House General Investigating Committee Friday voted to accept the findings of a bipartisan three-attorney panel that concluded the circumstances of the meeting with former House GOP Caucus chair Dustin Burrows and Michael Quinn Sullivan, CEO of conservative political nonprofit Empower Texans, weighed against charging Bonnen. Sullivan and others had criticized Bonnen for appearing to offer political favors to Sullivan’s organization in return for their help in defeating some Republican incumbents in the House.
The committee did not consider any action the House might consider taking against Bonnen. He continues to serve as House speaker but announced in October he will not run again for his seat, essentially signaling he will step down as speaker at the start of the next session of the Texas Legislature in January 2021.
Burrows, a Lubbock Republican who resigned from his caucus chairmanship after the meeting was made public, announced about the same time he will run for reelection.
Committee chairman Morgan Meyer, a Dallas Republican, told a nearly empty meeting chamber that the 16-page report will be distributed Friday to all 150 House members. Discussion of the report was done in executive session. Meyer took no questions during or after the meeting.
The conclusion of the investigation of the June 12 meeting was not unexpected. Jeri Yenne, district attorney in Bonnen’s home county of Brazoria, reviewed the results of the investigation by the Public Integrity Unit of the Texas Rangers (ordered by the House committee), and on Oct. 24 said she did not have enough evidence to prosecute Bonnen.
The investigating panel of Thomas Phillips, former chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court; Patricia Gray, a Galveston lawyer and former Democratic House member; and Will Hartnett, Dallas attorney and former Republican House member; found at least two violations of state law in its review of the Rangers’ investigation.
Sullivan published an account of his meeting with Bonnen and Burrows on Texas Scorecard, the Empower Texans website, in late July, saying both men encouraged him to direct campaign money and staff efforts to defeat a “hit list” of 10 incumbent Republicans whom Bonnen did not consider conservative enough.
In exchange, Bonnen offered to provide press credentials for reporters working for the Texas Scorecard. Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, chairman of the House Administration Committee, had several times rejected Sullivan’s application for press credentials because some of Empower Texans’ nonprofit work involves political activism.
Bonnen initially denied Sullivan’s account, but when Sullivan revealed he had secretly recorded the meeting and began allowing political allies to hear the tape, Bonnen issued apologies to House members.
Geren’s rejection of press credentials for the Texas Scorecard news operation was a factor in the panel’s considerations because Empower Texans also operates a political action committee. If Texas Scorecard engaged in any of the lobbying or advocacy Empower Texans does, the panel’s report says, Bonnen’s offer of credentials would have violated the state Government Code.
Bonnen could also be prosecuted under the Texas Penal Code for offering a benefit (the press credentials) that would have improved his chances of being re-elected — that is, Empower Texans’ help in eliminating his political enemies, the report said.
But the report said it was doubtful that a court would have made a connection between the press credentials and some “direct and substantial interest” for Bonnen. So even if charges were filed, they likely would not have resulted in prosecution, the report said.
The report also rejected the notion that Bonnen, Burrows and Sullivan broke several state laws because their meeting constituted a the formation of a political action committee, the contention of a lawsuit, filed by the Texas Democratic Party, that was dropped when Bonnen announced he was not running for office again.
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].