Texas Politics

‘He lied.’ Empower Texans CEO threatens to release audio recording of House Speaker

The CEO of the conservative political advocacy group Empower Texans threatened Wednesday to release a recording of a meeting with two top House Republicans if they do not recant “false claims.”

Michael Quinn Sullivan, the CEO of the hardline conservative group, wrote in a post on the organization’s news site Texas Scorecard, that he had recorded the entirety of a June 12 meeting with House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, and GOP Caucus Chairman Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, in which he alleged access was offered in exchange for targeting Republican incumbents.

“I will not be the victim he intended,” Sullivan wrote, demanding Bonnen apologize and retract his statements.

In a statement Wednesday night, Bonnen called on Sullivan to release the audio.

“Mr. Sullivan, release your recording. Release it in its entirety,” Bonnen said.

Sullivan touted the recording as proof of his version of events, and invited lawmakers and party leaders “who may feel they are impacted by the recording” to reach out to schedule a time to listen to it in the presence of Sullivan’s lawyer.

After listening to the recording late Wednesday night, Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, told the Texas Tribune that a list was referenced in the recording multiple times.

In a post last week, Sullivan alleged that 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 10 Republican incumbents whose names Burrows allegedly read off of a list.

Burrows’ office did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday night.

The list of Republican targets allegedly included Reps. Tan Parker of Flower Mound, Steve Allison of San Antonio, Trent Ashby of Lufkin, Ernest Bailes of Shepard, Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, Drew Darby of San Angelo, Kyle Kacal and John Raney of College Station, Stan Lambert of Abilene, and Phil Stephenson of Wharton.

Clardy told the Dallas Morning News he would listen to the recording Wednesday night, with other lawmakers expected to do the same Thursday.

Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, also told the Dallas Morning News that he listened to the recording, which he said is over an hour long and supports Sullivan’s account. Stickland, who has been backed by Empower Texans and announced he is not seeking re-election, did not immediately return a request for comment Wednesday night.

In a statement Monday — four days after the allegations were first raised — Bonnen confirmed he met with Sullivan, but publicly denied the allegation that a list of representatives was produced.

In Sullivan’s post Wednesday, he claimed that Bonnen has misrepresented aspects of the meeting and the events leading up to it. Now, Sullivan is demanding Bonnen and Burrows — who has been publicly silent on the issue — recant what they have said.

“Speaker Bonnen and Rep. Burrows must recant their false claims. All of them. Immediately,” Sullivan wrote. “If they do not, I believe I will be obligated to release the recording — in whole or in part, I haven’t decided yet — so as to set straight the record they have tried to contort.”

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.

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

Sullivan said Wednesday the recording was made for his “own protection,” and cited a gun rights activist’s claims that Bonnen lied about a separate confrontation between the two.

“I recorded the meeting because Bonnen is known not only for misrepresenting the truth but for being hot-tempered, impulsive, and undisciplined. The recording captures that,” Sullivan wrote.

In his post, Sullivan said he was worried releasing the recording could hurt Texas’ Republican Party, and urged Republican Party Chairman James Dickey to clean up “the GOP’s messy House.” A spokesman confirmed Dickey met with Sullivan on Tuesday, but declined to elaborate on what was discussed.

Empower Texans PAC has spent millions backing challengers to Republican incumbents that don’t align with the group’s views, including some of Tarrant County’s own lawmakers. Sullivan’s accusations come after Bonnen told reporters in May that any House members that campaign against their colleagues in the upcoming elections would face repercussions.

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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.