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 original 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 Tribune after he listened to the recording.
Still, in the wake of new accounts, a number of members wondered whether their 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, has 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 members’ descriptions of it — have created a political crisis for Bonnen, who has so far in his tenure has enjoyed broad bipartisan support in the House. Bonnen, in perhaps an effort to maintain that support after a successful first legislative session as speaker, told reporters in May that, should an incumbent campaign against a fellow member in future elections, there would be consequences.