Most Texas House Republicans are staying quiet while Dennis Bonnen faces a growing scandal

Texas Tribune News

Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen has been accused of politically targeting members of his own party.
Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen has been accused of politically targeting members of his own party.
Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

By Wednesday night, hours after a hardline conservative activist announced he had secretly recorded a meeting with Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, three Republicans had listened to the audio — and they went public with details that further questioned Bonnen’s denial about politically targeting members from his own party.

Those three Republicans have raised alarms that the recording — which has not been released to the public — means bad news for Bonnen and, more broadly, the Texas GOP heading into a competitive election cycle. But a vast majority of House Republicans have not listened to it, and as calls continue to grow for Michael Quinn Sullivan to release the full recording of the June 12 meeting, a number of members in the lower chamber appear to be withholding judgment publicly until more details surface.

Sullivan, CEO of Empower Texans, alleged last week that Bonnen and state Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican who chairs the House GOP Caucus, offered Sullivan’s organization media access to the lower chamber if the group targeted 10 GOP members in the 2020 primaries. Bonnen left the room, Sullivan said, before Burrows listed off the 10 members. Bonnen has given a different account of the meeting. And Burrows has not publicly responded to requests for comment.

On Wednesday, Bonnen called on Sullivan to release his recording “in its entirety” after Sullivan said he would play the audio for Republicans involved with the matter. Sullivan said he would hold off on releasing the recording — “in whole or in part, I haven’t decided yet,” he wrote Wednesday — to give Bonnen and Burrows a chance to “recant their false claims.”

According to the three House Republicans who listened Wednesday to the full recording — Jonathan Stickland of Bedford, who is set to retire in 2020; Steve Toth of The Woodlands; and Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, who was on the alleged target list — the audio largely aligns with Sullivan’s allegations.

“What I derived from the audio tape — it’s very clear — is that Speaker Bonnen was not truthful about a list not being provided,” Toth told The Texas Tribune after he listened to the recording.

Still, some members wondered whether these new accounts should be taken with a grain of salt.

Stickland, for example, has long been tied with Empower Texans and has raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars from the organization’s well-funded political action committee in recent years. Toth, though an initial supporter of Bonnen for speaker, also received a financial boost from Empower Texans PAC during election season, skeptics have noted. Clardy, for his part, was one of the last candidates to exit the open speaker’s race, which created wounds between him and Bonnen that have not yet healed.

Some of Bonnen’s top lieutenants, meanwhile, backed up the speaker Thursday with calls of their own for Sullivan to release the entire recording. One ally, who’s long been skeptical of Empower Texans and its sometimes controversial tactics, even wondered whether the recording is “fabricated.”

“Having all the evidence is always the best way to sort things out,” state Rep. Joe Moody, an El Paso Democrat who serves as Bonnen’s speaker pro tempore, tweeted Thursday. “I agree w/@RepDennisBonnen and colleagues on both sides of the aisle that the entire recording should be released.”

State Rep. John Zerwas, a Richmond Republican and chair of the powerful budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, said he had no confidence or respect for Sullivan “because he’s never shown most of our members any.”

“It’s a wait-and-see thing,” Zerwas, who is set to retire effective Sept. 30, told the Tribune. “I have no desire to go listen to a recording that was done secretively. That was totally inappropriate, frankly. As far as I’m concerned, it could have been fabricated itself. And it’s something I wouldn’t put it past him to do, in light of some of the other things that he’s done in the past.”

Still, it’s fair to say that the news of the recording — and the three representatives’ descriptions of it — have created a political crisis for Bonnen, who so far in his tenure has enjoyed broad bipartisan support in the House. Bonnen, perhaps in an effort to maintain that support after a successful first legislative session as speaker, told reporters in May that there would be consequences should an incumbent campaign against a fellow member in future elections.

As House Republicans continued to confer privately with one another, several other members on the list had plans to listen to the recording in the coming days, according to multiple people with knowledge of the situation.

Some members told the Tribune there was discussion of whether the GOP caucus should meet to discuss the matter before its already scheduled retreat in mid-October. For that to happen, according to bylaws the caucus adopted at the beginning of the legislative session, 10 members would need to request a meeting — and the group’s chair would have seven days after that to call one.

Beyond that, a new section in the caucus bylaws could imperil Burrows or even Bonnen, depending on how Sullivan’s allegations against them shake out. If a caucus member campaigns or financially supports a candidate running against another member, as The Texan first reported, the violation could result in a fine, suspension or revocation of caucus membership.

Questions about a caucus meeting aside, political observers have pointed to a legislative summit some state lawmakers are set to attend next week. The National Conference of State Legislatures, an organization that bills itself as “the champion of state legislatures,” is scheduled to host a legislative summit from Aug. 5-8 in Nashville. Top Republican leaders, including members from both the House and Senate, have typically attended the annual event.

Ross Ramsey contributed to this report.