After the long-awaited public release Tuesday of the tape of a secretly recorded meeting, it will be up to investigators to determine whether an offer made by House Speaker Dennis Bonnen to Austin political activist Michael Quinn Sullivan violated any laws or legislative ethics rules.
Nearly three months after first recounting details of a private meeting June 12 in Bonnen’s capitol office, Sullivan released the tape of his meeting with the speaker. The 64-minute recording makes clear Bonnen was eager to offer Sullivan, CEO of the conservative Empower Texans political group, media credentials for his organization in exchange for Sullivan’s help in defeating Republicans that Bonnen considered not conservative enough.
“Let’s go after these Republicans,” Bonnen tells Sullivan early in the recording, “and if we’re successful, beat some of these liberal pieces of shit [and then] kick my ass if we’re not doing a better job.”
The meeting has been under investigation since the recording was turned over to the Texas Rangers, who were called on by the Texas House General Investigating Committee to gather facts in the case.
The Rangers are expected to turn over the results of their investigation to the committee and to Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne, in Bonnen’s home county, who would determine whether or not Bonnen broke the law in offering the credentials to Sullivan.
Three attorneys contacted by The Texas Monitor in August interpreted Bonnen’s offer of the credentials in exchange for a personal benefit as misuse of public property by Bonnen and a violation of the abuse of office chapter in the Texas Penal Code.
There is also a question of whether the offer violates the Texas Constitution’s articles on bribery and the receipt of bribes by elected officials.
The Texas Democratic Party and state Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos, D-Richardson, in a lawsuit directed at Sullivan, contend that the meeting, which included then-GOP caucus chairman Dustin Burrows, constituted an illegal political campaign committee in violation of several state election laws.
In addition, Bonnen may have violated a rule, passed this year by the Republican caucus and publicly endorsed by Bonnen, against incumbent House members working or campaigning against other incumbents of their own party.
Bonnen on Tuesday issued a statement saying he had from the start called for Sullivan to release the entire audiotape, “because it will be immediately clear that no laws were broken.”
“This was nothing more than a political discussion — the problem is that I had it with that guy,” Bonnen said, referring to Sullivan. “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.”
Bonnen’s attorney, Brian Roark, issued a detailed refutation of the allegations hours before the recording went public. On Tuesday he told The Texas Monitor that public release of the recording had not changed his position that his client had done nothing wrong.
Roark said Rangers investigators told him they would not be making a recommendation about charges when they turn over their results to Yenne’s office, probably by the end of this week. Yenne will decide whether to turn over those results to a grand jury for deliberation.
A call to Yenne’s office requesting comment Tuesday was not returned.
The press credentials Bonnen offered, Roark said, have no monetary value and any benefit from Sullivan’s political work would have helped the Republican Party and its candidates, not Bonnen personally.
Sullivan said he timed the general release of the much-discussed secret recording to precede the annual GOP caucus retreat, which starts Thursday at the Omni Barton Creek Resort in Austin.
Sullivan spoke to The Texas Monitor minutes after releasing the recording and after talking about it Tuesday morning with conservative talk radio host Chris Salcedo of WBAP radio in Dallas. You can hear the entire exchange here.
Angry listeners to a show that has been friendly to Sullivan in the past overwhelmingly agreed that Bonnen should step down. “I would hope Dennis Bonnen would have the integrity to resign as speaker,” Salcedo told listeners. “Dennis Bonnen can survive this if, well, frankly, if Republicans are comfortable with him as a reflection of the character of the Texas House.”
Sullivan told The Texas Monitor he decided to secretly record his meeting with Bonnen because he was aware of Bonnen’s volatility and reputation for political retribution.
Having been critical of Bonnen’s leadership, particularly on property tax and school finance reform at the end of the legislative session in May, Sullivan said he came into the meeting expecting to be upbraided by Bonnen.
Instead, he said, he was surprised to find Bonnen joined by Burrows, tag-teaming Sullivan with the press credential deal. Burrows, from Lubbock, resigned as caucus chair in August.
“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,” Bonnen tells Sullivan on the recording.
Burrows, Sullivan said, had a prepared list of incumbent Republicans, to “pop,” including Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, Drew Darby of San Angelo, and Tan Parker of Flower Mound, all of whom announced their candidacies for House speaker last year and all of whom withdrew when Bonnen entered the race.
The others on the list were Steve Allison of San Antonio, Trent Ashby of Lufkin, Ernest Bailes of Shepherd, Keith Bell of Forney, Kyle Kacal of College Station, Stan Lambert of Abilene, John Raney of College Station, and Phil Stephenson of Wharton.
Bonnen can be heard a few minutes later telling Sullivan, “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 tells Bonnen.
“Well, no, you do,” Bonnen said. “We can make this work. I’ll put your guys on the floor next session.”
In addition, Bonnen said he would ban from the House floor Scott Braddock, the liberal editor of Quorum Report, a subscription political newsletter based in Austin. After the session, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick revealed that he had prohibited Braddock from reporting on the Senate floor for a “lack of professionalism.”
Having filed suit to challenge officials who refused to provide Empower Texans with House credentials, Sullivan said Tuesday he found Bonnen’s offer to ban Braddock appalling, despite Braddock’s trenchant criticism of Sullivan and Empower Texans.
After listening to the recording Tuesday, Braddock tweeted, “Having now heard what Speaker @RepDennisBonnen said about me, I’d say he owes an apology over my media credential. Not to me, but to Texas House members (who voted on the rules for credentials) for using a floor pass as political currency. Not even @DanPatrick did that.”
A longtime conservative political player in Austin, Sullivan said he was still “stunned” at how naturally Bonnen and Burrows could offer a private political deal like this.
Sullivan said he hopes that, if Bonnen is voted out, the Republican caucus will considers nominating someone “who displays honor and integrity and, first and foremost, someone who doesn’t engage in Austin’s sewer politics.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].