In an email to members, Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) apologized for saying “terrible things that are embarrassing to the members, to the House and to me personally” during a June 12 meeting with Michael Quinn Sullivan, the CEO of Empower Texans, and Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock), the Republican Caucus chair. Sullivan secretly recorded the conversation. A handful of Republican members and conservative activists say they have heard the recording, which has otherwise not been released.

Speaker Dennis Bonnen

Speaker Dennis Bonnen

“I was stupid to take a meeting with an individual who has worked hard to divide our house,” Bonnen said. “Once again, I call for the release of the entire unedited recording so the House is no longer held hostage, and we can begin to heal.”

Rep. Jon Rosenthal (D-Houston) is one of the members Bonnen is said to have disparaged during the conversation. In a statement, Rosenthal said he was at first “shocked and disappointed” at what was said. “Speaker Bonnen reached out to me, and we ended up having a long, thoughtful and emotional conversation about the comments he made,” Rosenthal said. “He made a mistake, as all humans do. He apologized, and I forgave him.”

In statements and online, a number of other members – mostly Republicans – expressed a similar combination of sadness and forgiveness. Rep. Jim Murphy (R-Houston) tweeted he appreciated “Speaker Bonnen stepping up and acknowledging that he, like all of us, is fallible.” Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Allen) tweeted Bonnen’s “statement exhibits a refreshing humility that admits missteps and seeks to rebuild the trust that has been broken.”

Not all were so forgiving. Rep. Tan Parker (R-Flower Mound) said in a statement that he found Bonnen’s “reckless ambition to be absolutely disgusting.” Parker is one of a handful of Republican legislators and conservative activists who have said they listened to Sullivan’s recording. He called on the Republican Caucus, which he formerly led, to investigate the incident. “Their actions directly contradict the bylaws and culture of our Caucus,” Parker said.

Indeed, Bonnen’s latest apology does not address several key allegations made by Sullivan, and that is consistent with several other public statements released by Bonnen since the meeting was first reported to the public.

On July 25, Sullivan wrote a blog post on Texas Scorecard, the group’s news site, claiming Bonnen invited Sullivan to the Speaker’s office to make a deal:

“Bonnen insisted: He would ensure Texas Scorecard reporters received House floor access in 2021 if we would lay off our criticism of the legislative session, not spend money from our affiliated PACs against certain Republicans, and—most shockingly—go after a list of other Republicans in the 2020 primary elections.

“Spending political money was the issue, Bonnen said. Not just refraining from spending it against his pals. He wanted us to spend it against Republicans he saw as not being helpful.

“If we could ‘make this work,’ he would put the Texas Scorecard guys on the floor next session.”

Sullivan said Burrows named 10 Republicans whom Empower Texans could “go after”: Reps. Steve Allison (R-San Antonio), Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin), Ernest Bailes (R-Shepherd), Travis Clardy (R-Nacogdoches), Drew Darby (R-San Angelo), Kyle Kacal (R-College Station), Stan Lambert (R-Abilene), Tan Parker (R-Flower Mound), John Raney (R-Bryan) and Phil Stephenson (R-Wharton). Sullivan said Burrows “claimed the list was about those who voted against the ban on taxpayer-funded lobbying,” a policy advocated by Empower Texans, “yet he specifically exempted several legislators on the wrong side of that vote from being targeted.”*

Bonnen denied Sullivan’s version of what transpired in a letter to House members late July 26, more than a day after Sullivan’s blog post went public. Nowhere within its two-plus pages did Bonnen directly address Sullivan’s accusation about the 10-member list. On the following Monday, Bonnen denied discussing a list. “Let me be clear,” Bonnen said, “At no point in our conversation was Sullivan provided with a list of target Members.”

It wasn’t until Wednesday of that week (July 31) that Sullivan revealed he had a recording of the conversation. Sullivan has threatened to release the recording “in whole or in part, I haven’t decided yet,” unless Bonnen and Burrows “recant their false claims.” Bonnen responded that he should “release it in its entirety,” a demand repeated in today’s (Tuesday) email from Bonnen to the membership. Sullivan and supporters have said that releasing the entire audio would damage the Republican Party.

In a series of tweets following the release of Bonnen’s letter to members, Sullivan demanded Bonnen “withdraw his false claims and lies against me” and “apologize for making the unethical offer of official actions in exchange for attacking his targets.”

Empower Texans PAC has targeted numerous Republican legislators over the years, mostly unsuccessfully. In 2016 and 2018, the group supported candidates running against Allison, Bailes, Clardy and Kacal. Empower Texans PAC was the single largest contributor to Damon Rambo, Bonnen’s 2018 primary challenger, accounting for 82% of his total contributions (Rambo received 23% of the vote.). The other names listed in Sullivan’s written account were the types of incumbents who would have historically been opposed by the group. They all received an F on the group’s biennial scorecard, as did Burrows.

In the first few days since Sullivan revealed the existence of a recording, most of the members and activists speaking out against Bonnen had close ties to Empower Texans or its donors. Parker was an exception. The last contribution Parker received from the group’s PAC was in late 2012, a $100 contribution. Another is Clardy, who has been actively opposed by Empower Texans in the past. In a statement, Clardy said the comments he’s read from others who have heard the tape “are consistent with what I heard.” Both Clardy and Parker were candidates for Speaker before Bonnen secured enough pledges to win the gavel.

Bonnen already had a primary challenger in Lake Jackson nurse Rhonda Seth. Since the news of the meeting first broke, Burrows has drawn a primary challenger in New Deal educator and band director David Speer.

* Other Republicans who voted against Senate Bill 29 were Reps. Doc Anderson (R-Waco), Keith Bell (R-Forney), Angie Chen Button (R-Garland), Dan Flynn (R-Van), Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi), Ken King (R-Canadian), John Kuempel (R-Seguin), Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio), Rick Miller (R-Sugar Land), Chris Paddie (R-Marshall), Four Price (R-Lubbock), John Smithee (R-Amarillo), Lynn Stucky (R-Argyle), Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston) and John Zerwas (R-Richmond).

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