No criminal charges coming against Bonnen

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Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne said today she did not have enough evidence to prosecute Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen for offers he made to a conservative political activist during a private — but secretly recorded — meeting on June 12.

Yenne’s decision not to prosecute Bonnen on charges of bribery or solicitation of a gift by a public servant comes a day after Bonnen announced he would not run for a 12th term in the House, in effect giving up the speaker’s chair after a single term.

Pressure on Bonnen began in late July when the activist, Michael Quinn Sullivan, CEO of Empower Texans, published an account of the meeting with Bonnen and Dustin Burrows, then-chairman of the House Republican Caucus.

A week later, Sullivan disclosed that he had secretly taped the meeting and selected several people, including political allies, to listen to it. Early in the meeting, the recording shows, Bonnen eagerly solicited Sullivan’s help in working to defeat a list of incumbent House Republicans in exchange for arranging for Sullivan and writers for Empower Texans to get credentials to cover the next legislative session from the House floor.

Three attorneys told The Texas Monitor they believe that Bonnen’s offer to Sullivan constituted misuse of public property — something of value offered in exchange for a personal benefit, in violation of the abuse of office chapter in the Texas Penal Code

The Texas House General Investigating Committee asked the Texas Rangers Public Integrity Unit to investigate the principals involved in the meeting, listen to Sullivan’s recording and deliver their findings to the committee and to Yenne, the district attorney in Bonnen’s home county.

In a statement issued today, Yenne thanked the Rangers for their work and professionalism. “As repugnant as Speaker Bonnen’s actions and statements are, I do not believe there is sufficient evidence from the June 12, 2019 meeting to warrant a criminal prosecution of Speaker Bonnen for bribery or solicitation of a gift by a public servant, therefore no criminal charges will be brought,” she wrote.

Yenne said she met multiple times with investigators but failed to come up with enough evidence to charge Bonnen under Chapter 411 of the Texas Government Code, Title 8 of the Texas Penal Code or the election code, as those provisions relate to elected state officials.

In her review of the investigation, Yenne called Bonnen’s conduct during the meeting with Sullivan “offensive, lacking in character and integrity, demeaning to other human beings, including local government officials, cities and counties, and the Members of the Texas House of Representatives who placed their confidence in Speaker Bonnen and are entitled to his respect.”

With Sullivan’s public release of the recording last week, the Republicans on Bonnen’s hit list and several Democrats whom Bonnen had disparaged called for him to step down as speaker.

The number of House Republicans calling for Bonnen’s resignation grew over the weekend and by Monday a majority of House members in his own party and committee chairs appointed by Bonnen had told him he should step down.

“After much prayer, consultation, and thoughtful consideration with my family, it is clear that I can no longer seek re-election as state representative of District 25, and subsequently, as speaker of the House,” Bonnen said in a statement on Tuesday.

With no charges against him, Bonnen can, unless he steps down voluntarily, continue to serve as speaker until a new one is elected on the first day of the next session, in January 2021. Bonnen, R-Angleton, will also continue to represent his district until the winner of the November 2020 election is sworn in.

Yenne was also critical of Bonnen’s contemptuous remarks about local and county officials, whose ordinances and policies have been challenged in the past two sessions by conservative Republicans. Those issues include a fracking ban in Denton, several local bans on plastic bags and paid sick leave ordinances in Austin, Dallas and San Antonio.

Bonnen’s — and Burrows’ — statements on the tape expressing ill will toward city and council officials  “are disappointing and disturbing,” Yenne said.

Yenne said the investigation results will also be “delivered to the House General Investigating Committee for an appropriate review.”

It isn’t clear what action the committee can take. Bonnen’s statements on the tape seem to violate a House Republican Caucus rule against incumbent House members campaigning against one another, but there is some question about whether his actions are in some way punishable by the House administration.

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

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Mark Lisheron has more than 30 years of experience in newspapers and was most recently the managing editor for Reason.com. He also served as deputy editor, national reporter and Austin bureau chief for Watchdog.org. He was the founding Austin bureau chief for the bureau's predecessor, Texas Watchdog, winning the First Amendment Award from the Society of Professional Journalists in Texas.

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