Despite nonstop coverage by every major media outlet regarding allegations made against the House speaker, Gov. Greg Abbott says he “[doesn’t] know any of the facts of what happened.”
Media coverage of the June 12 meeting between House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Empower Texans CEO Michael Quinn Sullivan has been extensive. Sullivan made allegations Bonnen offered his capitol bureau staff press credentials in exchange for preferential reporting and political expenditures from the Empower Texans PAC. Sullivan claimed Bonnen and Lubbock State Rep. Dustin Burrows, who chaired the House Republican Caucus, asked for 10 Republican lawmakers to be targeted by his organization.
After Bonnen repeatedly denied the allegations, Sullivan revealed he had recorded the meeting and offered Republican lawmakers and grassroots leaders an opportunity to listen to it in the presence of his legal counsel. Since that time, a dozen public corroborations of Sullivan’s account were issued by lawmakers, party officials, and grassroots leaders who have listened to the full recording.
Several lawmakers and grassroots leaders immediately issued statements calling for Bonnen’s resignation.
Abbott has not listened to the recording. He disclosed in a televised townhall held in Tyler that—despite having been afforded the opportunity to hear the recording and having spent time in person with Bonnen in recent days—he knew very little about what has unfolded since the June 12 meeting.
Abbott and Bonnen have had at least one public interaction since the story first broke and Sullivan disclosed his account of the event. Abbott has since named Bonnen to a newly launched Domestic Terrorism Task Force.
After addressing questions about the shooting in El Paso, KXAN Political Reporter Phil Prazan presented a series of questions to the governor on the brewing scandal in the Texas Capitol.
“Candidly, what is taking place right now is the best thing that could happen, and that is getting the Texas Rangers involved,” Abbott said. “They are highly regarded, respected; they are the elite investigating agency here in the state of Texas.”
Abbott continued: “We need to get to the bottom of this and get to the bottom of it quickly. If they find out that anything bad happened, action needs to be taken. On the other hand, if after their investigation, they say nothing bad or illegal happened, we need to move on.”
“But, I don’t know any of the facts of what happened,” Abbott said.
Eventually, he sang Bonnen’s praises for his contributions during the 86th Legislative Session.
“I do know this, and that is: Working with Speaker Bonnen this past session, we were able to pass remarkable reforms to reduce property taxes, to reform school finance, and so many other things. And so, he was a good partner in working to make this a very successful session.”
Prazan then pressed him on the public outcry and calls for Bonnen’s resignation, alluding to Abbott having made ethics reform an emergency item for lawmakers to address in both 2015 and 2017.
“Just one quick follow-up on that, because I know ethics are an important issue for you,” Prazan said. “You’ve not just called for ethics reforms once in the legislature, but twice. Some people have called for him to resign. Do you agree with them?”
“It’s premature,” Abbott responded. “We need to find out what the Rangers are going to find.”
Abbott did not include ethics reform as a priority or emergency item in 2019, where the overarching narrative out of the Capitol was a renewed sense of bipartisan unity. Republican lawmakers publicly touted their willingness to “make deals” and have a “seat at the table” during backroom negotiations.
Bonnen’s various responses to Sullivan’s allegations have—in the words of Tyler Republican State Rep. Matt Schaefer—varied from “misleading” to “blatantly false.”
Since unanimously taking the gavel in January, questions have swirled about Bonnen’s legendary temper and temperament. Following the speaker’s public slandering of Texas Gun Rights activist Chris McNutt, police body cam footage revealed Bonnen’s claims to be false.
Despite Abbott’s reluctance to wade into the matter and the investigation being conducted by the Texas Rangers Public Integrity Unit, it seems grassroots Texans and even RPT leaders closer to the voters will continue to call for the Republican Party to deal with the matter sooner rather than later.
Burrows has since resigned as chairman of the House Republican Caucus for his role in the ongoing scandal.