House Republicans condemned House Speaker Dennis Bonnen for his part in a private meeting where it was alleged Bonnen offered favors in exchange for work to defeat political enemies.
An investigative report by the Texas Rangers is expected to determine if Bonnen broke the law when he offered to secure press credentials for reporters for Empower Texans, a conservative activist group headed by Michael Quinn Sullivan, in exchange for campaigning against incumbent House Republicans whom Bonnen deemed not conservative enough.
That report is expected to be turned over to the House General Investigating Committee that asked for the investigation and to Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne in Bonnen’s home county to decide if Bonnen should be prosecuted.
Bonnen’s offer of an incentive to defeat members of his own party might also have broken a Republican caucus rule, promoted by Bonnen, discouraging members from campaigning against one another.
It was the disparagement of those Republicans as well as several Democratic members of the House that drew the condemnation of the GOP caucus, rather than the technical rule-breaking.
The bad-mouthing happened in a meeting June 12 with Bonnen, former caucus chair Dustin Burrows and Sullivan, who last week publicly released his secret recording of the session.
“We, the members of the Texas House Republican Caucus, condemn in the strongest possible terms the offensive language used and the statements made by Speaker Bonnen and Representative Burrows during the secretly recorded meeting which occurred on June 12th,” the caucus wrote in a statement prepared for the media. “Both members violated the high standards of conduct we expect of our members. Their conduct does not reflect the views of our Caucus membership. We completely and fully support the [House] members mentioned in the recording.”
The statement implied that the caucus went no further because the Texas Constitution requires the House to decide on its speaker only when the legislature is in session, which will not happen again until January 2021, barring the unlikely call for a special session by Gov. Greg Abbott. Traditionally, the House votes to elect its speaker on the first day of the session.
The caucus nearly two years ago changed its rules requiring Republicans to back a preferred candidate for speaker before the start of the session. To judge from the calls for his resignation in the days leading up to the caucus retreat last week at the Omni Barton Creek Resort in Austin, Bonnen will need the full interim to repair relationships and retain his speaker’s chair.
According to several attendees at the retreat, Bonnen did not want to wait to see where he stood with his colleagues. In an emotional address at the start of a four-hour private meeting, according to the Texas Tribune, Bonnen made a motion calling for the caucus to take a vote on his resignation. After caucus members declined to take up the motion, Bonnen withdrew it.
The members who spoke anonymously to the Tribune described Bonnen as “apologetic and remorseful.”
Representatives Jeff Leach and Matt Shaheen of Plano, Justin Holland of Rockwall and Scott Sanford of McKinney left the retreat and issued a statement to The Dallas Morning News, “calling on Speaker Bonnen to work diligently to prove to all 149 House members and, more importantly, to the people of Texas, that he can rebuild trust and continue to faithfully lead the House and our state forward. If that is not possible, the people of Texas expect and deserve a new Speaker of the House during the 87th Legislature.”
Other House Republicans, including DeWayne Burns of Cleburne, left the retreat and joined the ranks of those who apparently have concluded that Bonnen’s damage to the party and the state of Texas is irreparable.
“I believe Dennis Bonnen has lost the trust of members of the Texas House, the citizens I serve and voters across the state of Texas,” Burns said in a Facebook post. “I can no longer support Dennis Bonnen as Speaker of the Texas House.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].