When House Speaker Dennis Bonnen invited me to his office, I didn’t know he would immerse me in a quid pro quo scandal that threatens to “destroy” (in the words of Texas’ lieutenant governor) the Republican Party in Texas. I was suspicious of Bonnen’s actions during his several months as speaker; so much so that I decided as CEO of Empower Texans to protect myself, my family, my organization, and staff by recording the meeting.
With the approval of my legal team – and despite my personal qualms – I am today releasing the full, uncensored and unredacted 64 minutes of audio from the meeting. This comes at the widely reported insistence of Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and RPT Chairman James Dickey. You will also find a timeline of the events leading up to and following the meeting, timestamps for specific points in the meeting, and a certified transcript of the audio.
To be clear: neither Abbott, Patrick, nor Dickey took the opportunity to first hear the audio in private as had been offered to all Republican officials since early August.
From What Did I Want To Be Protected?
I recorded the meeting not to capture the “locker room” talk or gossip that is typical of meetings in the Austin swamp, but to ensure Bonnen could not lie about the meeting or distort its purpose in the future. I had in mind the lies he told (publicly and without any consequence so far) about Chris McNutt of Texas Gun Rights, and I have heard stories of him doing the same to others, so I wasn’t going to let him do it to me.
And it’s a good thing I did record our encounter. My first step after the meeting where he placed me in legal jeopardy was to reach out to Mr. Bonnen privately; I hoped he would retract his offer and apologize for putting me in what would have been an impossible situation had it not been recorded. Instead, he responded with a letter full of lies and misrepresentations. Bonnen claimed not to have offered media credentials for my staff in return for specific action by me (he did), he claimed not to have provided a list of candidates to target (it was provided), and even – most bizarrely – he claimed I requested the meeting (I did not).
My response was to publicly report the meeting without disclosing the existence of the recording. There were two reasons for that. First, I am not a “record the meeting” kind of person and had no intention of using it against him. Second, there are disclosures on the recording I believe could be harmful to innocent bystanders.
I am aware that there are people who don’t care about the ethical issues raised by Bonnen’s actions; they are merely interested in the salacious details and innuendo that was recorded. Others want to use the recording for political reasons. Neither is important to me. I want Mr. Bonnen to apologize for putting me in the position he did; he needs to recant his statements. And, of course, he needs to apologize for the lies he has since told about me and my organization.
Bonnen’s Threats And Denials
Before learning there was a recording, Speaker Bonnen lied about every single aspect of the meeting. The pattern of lies is significant. He told the public during the session he would not challenge any incumbent House members, and he threatened to punish any House members who did. The House GOP caucus even passed a rule this year prohibiting its members from working against other Republican incumbents. Then, as he plotted to break his own rules, he told Republican Caucus members that I (rather than he) was their greatest threat.
Most significantly, of course, is Mr. Bonnen offering to ensure Texas Scorecard staff would receive media credentials in 2021 that were improperly denied to them in 2019 on the condition I went along with his plan. He has denied making this quid pro quo offer.
Offering A Deal And A List
Bonnen was insistent about making a deal; it was apparently the sole purpose of our meeting; everything else served that purpose. It has left me wondering how many other crooked deals he has made in his 25-year legislative career.
You will recall that Bonnen told legislators and the public he did not have a list of GOP targets. In fact, he was emphatic on this point in a personal letter to every member of his caucus – a statement issued before he was aware the meeting had been recorded. Dennis Bonnen clearly expected to lie and get away with it.
At numerous points in the meeting Bonnen mentioned specific legislators to target as well as a “list” — that’s the exact word he used — of Republicans to take on. At one point, Bonnen started naming individuals from his list before stopping himself and remembering he had delegated that task to State Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock) whom he had invited to the meeting. At the time Burrows was the GOP Caucus Chairman, a position from which he resigned in mid-August.
Because Bonnen apparently hopes House members who have not listened to the recording will believe that no such list was discussed, here’s Bonnen setting the stage for discussion of that list:
The Hapless Witness
Burrows participation in the meeting was a surprise, and his reason for being there wasn’t exactly clear to me. Publicly, Bonnen has offered differing reasons as to why Burrows was invited. First, Bonnen told members he invited Burrows to help make me understand the importance of not challenging Republicans in the primary. Later, he said he asked Burrows to be there as a witness to the conversation, which became unbelievable after he announced he had requested Burrows to be completely silent when the existence of the recording was revealed.
So how did this hapless witness, Dustin Burrows, know to have a list ready to read to me if he was only in the meeting to silently safeguard Bonnen’s integrity?
Here is Bonnen talking about Republicans to “pop” from the list they both later denied having.
Ironically, it was Burrows as chairman of the House Republican Caucus who pushed a rule prohibiting Republicans from opposing other Republican incumbents.
Quid Pro Quo
My legal jeopardy arose because Bonnen combined two actions in a way I believe was intentional. First, he offered an official act: granting media credentials for Texas Scorecard reporters that he and his leadership team have so far denied. In exchange, he requested I take actions benefiting him directly.
The granting the credentials is significant. His team’s refusal to do so is the subject of a federal lawsuit, currently on appeal before the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans. The Speaker of the Texas House has ultimate charge over the functions and operations of the House, even if it is routinely delegated to other members or staff. As speaker, Bonnen had the power to ensure the team of Texas Scorecard reporters finally received credentials… if I played along.
Second, Bonnen and Burrows had laid out a path for me to challenge lawmakers who we do not support and may have challenged anyway. Indeed, I was being given the go-ahead by the no-primaries-in-2020 House Speaker to “pop” them! Worse, the Bonnen-Burrows list was formed — according to them — to target a subset of lawmakers who voted against a ban on taxpayer funded lobbying. (That’s legislation Democrats and some Republicans voted to kill at the end of the session; it remains a top issue for grassroots conservatives.)
“The Money’s The Issue”
Throughout the conversation, Bonnen was equally insistent money not be spent specifically against the two of them. He disliked the rhetoric about the session, but “the money’s the issue” he said at the end of our meeting. Along with Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Patrick, Bonnen spent the days after session declaring it a major win for conservatives; a point grassroots leaders and conservative activists have openly disputed.
On that issue of rhetoric, Bonnen not-so-subtly acknowledged the session’s results weren’t great. He suggested that by taking out his list of Republicans and Democrats, we could expect better results in 2021.
Under the circumstances they set up, if I did what we wanted to do – oppose some or all of the incumbents they listed – Bonnen could later deny media credentials and claim I tried to bribe him. In that case, it would have been his word against mine and, worse, he would have been able to count on his “witness” to testify against me.
My only choice – the only choice for anyone who is offered a bribe or framed by calculating liars – was to expose their schemes and abuses. Silence would be assent.
There is another issue that should bother House Republicans who support Bonnen. In our conversation, he and Burrows gave a pass to many Republicans who voted wrong on the taxpayer-funded lobbying issue. That leads me to believe their list was more about removing Bonnen’s perceived enemies — any Republican who might challenge him — than any particular policy outcome. Referencing the vote in our meeting was their way to lure me into their scheme.
The pattern and sheer number of lies Bonnen has told, and Burrows’ calculated silence, makes me suspicious of everything both men have said.
For example, when I read back to him the names, Burrows wanted to be sure I knew State Rep. Tan Parker (R-Flower Mound), the former caucus chairman, was on the list of acceptable GOP targets while excusing freshman State Rep. Keith Bell (R-Forney) as a “dumb freshman.” Remember, Bonnen later claimed Burrows was just a witness and Burrows claimed there was no list.
Every Republican legislator should wonder what other private meetings Bonnen held with other groups and media organizations in which he provided names on an all-clear-to-target list. Bonnen made it clear in the meeting that his public stance regarding the 2020 election cycle was meant to empower himself, not members of the legislature, not the GOP, and certainly not the public.
Even without the audio, I would have done everything I have done. The difference is that Bonnen could have lied about it successfully (and apparently relied on Burrows’ loyalty to get away with it). We’ve seen Bonnen lie (about Chris McNutt, for example) and legislators line up to support him even despite undeniable video evidence from the Department of Public Safety.
Republican legislators will decide if they want a speaker of the Texas House from their party who so comfortably and brazenly lies to their faces. He still has not come clean, despite ironclad proof of his duplicity. Can Republican legislators listen to the evidence and still claim Dennis Bonnen is a deserving leader for Texas? Texas voters should ask them.
Erratum: Late in the conversation I reference State Rep. Travis Clardy; I mistakenly confused the 2018 challenger to State Rep. Chris Paddie with the challenger to Mr. Clardy.
Certified transcript in PDF format.
|Date / Time||Information|
|December 1, 2018||State Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Lake Jackson) receives unanimous support of the Texas House Republican Caucus for the speakership.|
|April 5, 2019||Bonnen (falsely) claims his family was threatened by a Second Amendment rights activist block walking in Bonnen’s neighborhood.|
|April 9, 2019||Bonnen storms out of the GOP spring fundraiser without delivering his scheduled remarks.|
|April 22, 2019||DPS footage shows Bonnen lied about the Second Amendment rights activist.|
|May 2019||At the insistence of State Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock), the Texas House Republican Caucus adopts a rule prohibiting members from campaigning against each other.|
|May 28, 2019||Bonnen says he will punish any House incumbents for “campaigning against each other” in 2020, regardless of party.|
|May 29, 2019||Michael Quinn Sullivan and Speaker Bonnen see each other at Hobby airport; Bonnen asks Sullivan to meet with him at the Capitol.|
|June 10, 2019||As requested, Sullivan texts Bonnen to set a meeting. Bonnen suggests 6/12/2019 at 3pm.|
|June 12, 2019||Meeting occurs at the Texas Capitol, with Bonnen inviting Burrows as an unexpected guest. Immediately after, Sullivan seeks legal counsel based on the contents of the meeting.|
|Timestamp 0:00-2:11||Walking sounds. Inaudible.|
|2:12||Greetings and discussion of 75th Anniversary of D-Day.|
|11:18||Bonnen turns the focus to the 2020 elections.|
|12:00||Bonnen states if Sullivan “needs some primaries to fight in” he will leave and Burrows will tell him some that he’d love if Sullivan fought in.|
|13:02||Bonnen claims he is being stopped by “ten moderate republicans.” He distinguishes himself from Straus in where they wanted to govern and who they wanted to “screw.”|
|13:57||Bonnen asks Sullivan to hold off campaigning against him and Burrows until the 2022 cycle.|
|14:36||Bonnen asks Sullivan to help him “kill off one or two or three” moderate republicans.|
|15:07||Bonnen mentions “turning our guns” on three freshman Democrats and discusses how he doesn’t like them.|
|16:01||Bonnen insists on “what he want[s] to do” for Sullivan, who responds that he “[doesn’t] need anything.” Bonnen insists if they can “make this work” he will “put [Sullivan’s] guys on the floor next session.”|
|16:33||Sullivan changes the subject to discussion of Bonnen’s public directive to Republicans not to campaign against Democrat House members. Bonnen makes clear that he is telling Republicans behind the scenes to “go get out there.”|
|22:09||Bonnen tells the story of how he recruited an opponent for Talarico. Sullivan suggests that Bonnen make it more clear to Republicans that they should be campaigning against Democrats.|
|23:56||Burrows and Bonnen discuss efforts to recruit Republicans to run in Dallas County. Bonnen accuses Straus of encouraging a Hispanic woman to run against State Rep. Morgan Meyer instead of against a “good moderate Democrat.”|
|25:19||Sullivan explains he does not control public perception and that voters look to conservative success in other states and are frustrated.|
|25:43||Bonnen complains about Sullivan’s unequal treatment of the House versus the Senate.|
|35:28||Bonnen mentions that Burrows has “some guys, if you want to go pop, they’re going to have to find their own money” and that he may give them a “pittance.” Bonnen singles out State Rep. Phil Stephenson.|
|36:01||Sullivan states that involvement in primaries and elections is not his primary objective.|
|37:06||Bonnen insists that “there are some opportunities here” because there are some people he is not going to protect. Bonnen then implies he can prevent TLR from funding these candidates, but that he can’t control ART as much.|
|38:13||Bonnen lists some names off the list – “Travis Clardy, Phil Stephenson, and I don’t want to go any further down that list.” “He can,” Bonnen says, referring to Burrows.|
|38:24||Bonnen boasts he told mayors and county judges it was his goal for the 86th to be the worst session in the history of the legislature for cities and counties.|
|40:20||Bonnen says he hopes Sullivan won’t fund challengers in ninety percent of the Republican primaries but Burrows will give Sullivan a list of primaries they would like Sullivan to be involved in.|
|40:34||Sullivan makes clear that he will write accurately about races. Bonnen asks Sullivan to not write about them more than he has to and not to put his money into them.|
|43:33||Bonnen says “let’s go after these Republicans” and “beat some of these liberal pieces of s***.”|
|44:12||Bonnen reiterates that “the money’s the issue” and asks Sullivan to “back down on the rhetoric.”|
|45:10||Bonnen offers to let Sullivan stay at his in-law’s house in Red River, New Mexico.|
|47:03||Burrows goes through the list of Republicans who voted against the taxpayer funded lobbying ban, telling Michael which ones he does or doesn’t want Sullivan to target. He identifies Clardy as the “ringleader” of the opposition. Sullivan and Burrows discuss whether certain members are coming back, and whether Smithee can be beaten.|
|49:09||Sullivan reads back the list he has written down – Allison, Ashby, Bailes, Clardy, Darby, Kacal, Lambert, Rainey, and Stephenson. Burrows says to leave Keith Bell alone because he is a “dumb freshman.” He specifically asks whether Parker is “on that list” and says to put him on the “list.”|
|57:29||Sullivan and Burrows discuss their fear that eliminating straight-ticket voting will be bad for Republicans. Burrows says that he is considering bringing in out-of-state consultants to help with general election races.|
|1:03:04||Burrows says goodbye and promises to be easier to contact in the future.|
|1:03:26 - End||Mostly inaudible as Sullivan and Burrows exit. Some discussion of Burrows’ flights. Walking sounds.|
|June 19, 2019||Sullivan sends letter to Bonnen and Burrows, "I unequivocally reject your offer."|
|June 27, 2019||Bonnen sends letter back to Sullivan denying events in meeting. "No offer was made to you of any kind…."|
|July 25, 2019||Sullivan publishes article about the Bonnen meeting on TexasScorecard.com.|
|July 26, 2019||Bonnen emails the House Republican Caucus and claims he told Sullivan in the meeting not to target Republican members.|
|July 29, 2019||Bonnen releases an official statement: "At no point in our conversation was Sullivan provided with a list of target Members…."|
|July 31, 2019||To combat the lies being told by Bonnen about the meeting, Sullivan announces on he recorded it.|
|August 12,2019||Texas House General Investigating Committee requests the Texas Rangers investigate Bonnen/Sullivan meeting.|
|August 12, 2019||Lt. Col. Allen West, a candidate for the chairmanship of the Republican Party of Texas, tells national radio host Chris Salcedo that Bonnen should resign.|
|August 12, 2019||Bonnen spokesman promotes article denying Bonnen's offer was a crime.|
|August 13, 2019||Brazoria County DA Jeri Yenne makes a prosecutorial request of the Texas Rangers to investigate Bonnen.|
|August 16, 2019||Burrows resigns as GOP Caucus Chairman|
|August 22, 2019||Burrows breaks silence to go on a Lubbock radio show saying "there was no physical list."|
|September 23, 2019||On the Mark Davis radio show, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick says he and Gov. Greg Abbott want the audio released.|
|October 8, 2019||Media outlets report Texas Rangers are requesting all House members to share information about the investigation into Bonnen.|