Texas Politics

After silence, Speaker Bonnen publicly denies list targeting Republican incumbents

House Speaker Dennis Bonnen publicly denied Monday providing a list of 10 Republican incumbents for the conservative group Empower Texans to target in exchange for access — four days after the allegations were first raised by the group’s CEO.

In a statement Monday, Bonnen called allegations raised by Empower Texans’ CEO Michael Quinn Sullivan “the latest hit job” by the political advocacy group that has spent millions in Texas politics.

“Let me be clear. At no point in our conversation was Sullivan provided with a list of target Members,” Bonnen said in a statement. “I had one simple reason for taking the meeting — I saw it as an opportunity to protect my Republican colleagues and prevent us from having to waste millions of dollars defending ourselves against Empower Texans’ destructive primary attacks, as we have had to do the past several cycles.”

Empower Texans PAC has spent millions backing challengers to Republican incumbents that don’t align with the group’s hardline conservative views, including some of Tarrant County’s own lawmakers. Monday’s statement marks the first time Bonnen has publicly responded to the allegations.

In a post on Thursday, Sullivan claimed that during a June 12 meeting with Bonnen and House GOP Caucus Chairman Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, Bonnen offered two of Texas Scorecard’s writers long sought-after House press credentials. In exchange, Sullivan claimed, Empower Texans would promise to refrain from targeting certain Republican members in the upcoming 2020 elections while going after others.

Sullivan claimed that Bonnen left the room while Burrows produced a list of Republican targets that included Rep. Tan Parker of Flower Mound, Rep. Steve Allison of San Antonio, Rep. Trent Ashby of Lufkin, Rep. Ernest Bailes of Shepard, Rep. Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, Rep. Drew Darby of San Angelo, Reps. Kyle Kacal and John Raney of College Station, Rep. Stan Lambert of Abilene, and Rep. Phil Stephenson of Wharton.

Ashby declined to comment, while other members did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment since last week.

Empower Texans did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday, but in a Texas Scorecard post shortly after Bonnen’s statement, Sullivan doubled down on Burrow’s alleged role during the meeting, claiming that Burrows read the list off to Sullivan after Bonnen left the room.

Sullivan said on Twitter last week that he would not be sharing a copy of a letter he sent declining Bonnen’s alleged offer.

Included in Sullivan’s original post was a link to a June 27 letter that he said Bonnen sent in response to Sullivan’s denial. In it, Bonnen stressed that Sullivan’s letter reflected “a misimpression” of the meeting, and claimed no offer was made.

According to the Texas Tribune, Bonnen sent an email to House Republicans Friday night — which Bonnen acknowledged in his statement Monday — explaining how the meeting with Sullivan first came about after he ran into him at Hobby Airport in Houston.

Bailes told the Dallas Morning News Monday that he had yet to hear from Bonnen or Burrows, and planned to send a letter to Burrows demanding answers. Burrows has not responded to requests for comment since last week, which Bonnen said Monday was at his request.

“I asked Chairman Burrows to be present as a witness to our conversation. I also asked him not to comment on this matter because this was an attack by Sullivan on me as the Speaker, and I wanted the opportunity to communicate with Members directly in an email that I sent on Friday evening,” Bonnen said in a statement. “I have apologized to Chairman Burrows for everything he has gone through — at no fault of his own — as a result of simply doing what I asked him to do.”

The allegations follow Bonnen’s stern message to members in May, when he warned House members that if they campaigned against their colleagues in the upcoming election, they would face repercussions.

“I will weigh in against you. And if I am fortunate enough to continue to be Speaker, you will find yourself not well-positioned in the next session,” Bonnen told reporters at the time.

Bonnen reiterated in his Friday email to members and June 27 letter that he understands the House Administration Committee — which is chaired by Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth — has the sole discretion to grant media credentials that allow members of the press to access the House floor.

Geren is being sued by Texas Scorecard — a news site tied to Empower Texans — for denying two of the site’s writers House media credentials earlier this year. The lawsuit, which was dismissed by a federal judge in May, is being appealed in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Empower Texans PAC has funded challengers to Geren before, and Geren said last week that he would not comment on the matter because of the ongoing lawsuit.

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Tessa Weinberg is a state government for the Star-Telegram. Based in Austin, she covers all things policy and politics with a focus on Tarrant County. She previously covered the Missouri legislature where her reporting prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. A California native and graduate of the University of Missouri, she’s made her way across the U.S. and landed in Texas in May 2019.