Texas House Republicans are fighting over release of Bonnen-Sullivan meeting tape

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State Rep. Jonathan Stickland said Thursday he heard Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen offer conservative watchdog Michael Quinn Sullivan media credentials in exchange for Sullivan working to defeat 10 incumbent house Republicans.

Stickland told Lubbock talk radio host Chad Hasty during a long interview on his program Thursday morning that he had heard an audiotape made secretly by Sullivan of a meeting with Bonnen and House GOP Caucus leaders Dustin Burrows on June 12 in Austin. Bonnen’s offer to Sullivan during the meeting included rescinding the press credentials of Scott Braddock, editor of the subscription-funded political website Quorum Report and a frequent Sullivan critic, Stickland said.

If true, Bonnen’s offer could be seen as a misuse of public property — the media credentials — offered in exchange for a personal benefit, a violation of the abuse of office chapter in the Texas Penal Code. The Texas Monitor confirmed that interpretation Thursday with three attorneys who did not want to be identified because they do political and government work.

Stickland’s account of what’s on the recording largely supports the description of the meeting that Sullivan, CEO of the conservative advocacy nonprofit group Empower Texans, gave last week.

The back-and-forth between Sullivan and Bonnen escalated in the last 36 hours, with Sullivan disclosing that he had taped the meeting and shared the audio with at least three Republican House members: Stickland of Bedford, Steve Toth of The Woodlands, and Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches. Clardy, a candidate for house speaker who dropped out amid a groundswell of support for Bonnen last fall, is one of the 10 names on the alleged list of targeted incumbents.

Bonnen’s and Burrows’ standing with House members, Republicans in particular, has been significantly damaged, even without the public having heard audio of the meeting, Mark Jones, political science fellow for Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said Thursday.

Prior to the disclosure of the tape, Jones told The Texas Monitor he questioned Sullivan’s account of the meeting and thought it might backfire on him. Should the growing scandal weaken the Republican Party prior to what is expected to be a competitive primary season in 2020, Sullivan might still pay a political price, Jones said.

“This just doesn’t look good for the speaker or for the caucus chair,” Jones said. “You could have this kind of Republican civil war when they had 95 or 96 House seats [currently, there are 83 Republicans and 67 Democrats in the House]. Then you had Obama-fueled tailwinds. Now you have Trump-fueled headwinds. There is a very real threat of the Republicans losing the House.”

Stickland, whose seat is one of those at stake because he isn’t running for reelection, told Hasty that Bonnen comes across worse on the audio than Sullivan first characterized it.

And while Bonnen, in his responses to Sullivan’s allegations, has deflected questions about making an offer of the press credentials, Stickland says Bonnen makes the offer “numerous times,” during the tape’s hour-long running time.

“Then he says, ‘I’ll even go one step further. I’ll get Scott Braddock off the floor for you,’” Stickland told the talk-radio host.

Braddock, on the Quorum Report site and on social media, has been openly combative with Sullivan and other members of the Empower Texans staff. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, nettled by Braddock’s tweets about a member of his staff early in the last session, banned him from the floor of the Senate, although his press credentials were not formally revoked.  

Credentialed access was important enough that Sullivan secured Senate credentials for Empower Texans reporters. When the House denied him the same access, Sullivan sued. And when a federal district court dismissed the suit, he appealed to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, where the case awaits a hearing.

The more immediate problem for Bonnen and Burrows is party fallout from the release of the target list that Bonnen, in a letter to House members and a follow-up statement, said did not exist.

Bonnen issued no statements on Thursday. In an earlier statement, he said he had asked Burrows to refrain from commenting on the meeting.

Sullivan said the names on the list were Steve Allison of San Antonio, Trent Ashby of Lufkin, Ernest Bailes of Shepherd, Kyle Kacal of College Station, Stan Lambert of Abilene, John Raney of Bryan, Phil Stephenson of Wharton, Drew Darby of San Angelo, Tan Parker of Flower Mound, and Clardy.

Darby, Parker and Clardy were all candidates for House speaker, but fell in behind Bonnen prior to his unanimous election in January. 

Not only do Bonnen and Burrows repeatedly refer to a list, Stickland told Hasty, but Bonnen’s “vomiting of the mouth” about House members not on the list was mean-spirited.

“It’s more damaging stuff than even Michael Quinn Sullivan let on,” Stickland said. “It hurts a lot of people who are innocent and not even part of this. It’s beneath the office, for sure.”

On Wednesday, when Sullivan announced he had taped the meeting, he said he did it “to protect myself from legal jeopardy, and to protect my own reputation, my family, Empower Texans, and our employees from the lies and malicious attacks Dennis Bonnen has proven he will launch against others when they do not bend to his will.

“There is almost no aspect of the June 12 meeting, or the events leading up to it, about which Bonnen has not lied.”

In response, Bonnen issued a terse statement. “Mr. Sullivan, release your recording. Release it in its entirety.”

After Bonnen released his statement, Toth told the Texas Tribune that Sullivan made the audio available to him. “What I derived from the audio tape — it’s very clear — is that Speaker Bonnen was not truthful about a list not being provided.” 

“I love Dennis,” Toth said.  “I didn’t believe any of this. I was shocked. I am discouraged to see the light it put him in and the light it put on the Republican Party.”

Clardy told the Dallas Morning News the audio was consistent with the accounts Sullivan has offered.

Jones said he has yet to understand why Bonnen agreed to the meeting with Sullivan, one of the few major political players to take issue with how Bonnen handled himself in his first term as speaker.

“Up close you have to wonder why this happened,” Jones said. “And even if you step back, why do this and risk damaging the Republican Party?”

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

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