Texas Politics

‘We need to be unified’: Calls grow for Empower Texans to release recording of Speaker

A Republican lawmaker who listened to a recording that has roiled the House said the party needs to remain unified in its next steps amid growing calls for the audio to be released to the public.

Rep. Kyle Biedermann, R-Fredericksburg, said he listened to the recording Thursday night and that it largely supports allegations raised by Empower Texans CEO Michael Quinn Sullivan.

“The recording speaks for itself,” Biedermann said. “There was talk of a list and there was other things that were talked about just as Michael Quinn Sullivan’s report said.”

Sullivan first raised allegations last week that during the meeting access was offered in exchange for targeting a list of 10 Republican incumbents.

Biedermann, who according to the National Institute on Money in Politics has accepted nearly $200,000 from the Empower Texans PAC since 2016, declined to join a growing chorus of lawmakers asking for the recording to be released to the public. The Dallas Morning News first reported that the House Republican Caucus has a planned retreat in October, and Biedermann said he would like to see the issue discussed earlier than that.

“That’s not my call,” Biedermann said of the recording’s release. “Right now the Republican Party needs to do the right thing. We need to be unified in what’s going to happen and what our next steps are.”

Democratic Caucus Chairman Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, said in a statement Friday that the recording of a June 12 meeting between Sullivan, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, and GOP Caucus Chairman Dustin Burrows of Lubbock should be released in its entirety, and that allegations should be “investigated by appropriate authorities” if true.

Since allegations were raised last week, “the House Democratic Caucus has watched events unfold with the shared hope that no matter what the truth is, it would come out quickly and completely. Unfortunately, that has yet to happen,” Turner said in a statement. “Complete transparency is paramount; allowing select political insiders to hear it in private isn’t going to cut it.”

Turner’s statement comes two days after Bonnen himself called on Sullivan to release the recording in its entirety. Burrows has yet to comment publicly.

Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, tweeted Thursday that he agreed with Bonnen and other lawmakers’ calls for the recording to be released to the public. Moody was picked by Bonnen to serve as speaker pro tempore this session, the No. 2 position in the House.

“Having all the evidence is always the best way to sort things out,” Moody wrote.

Turner stressed that “the truth needs to come out quickly,” in order for the allegations to be investigated if true, or dismissed if proven false.

“If Mr. Sullivan’s accusations are true, at least some of what he alleges must likely be investigated by appropriate authorities, to say nothing of the work the entire House will have to undertake to repair itself,” Turner said. “Conversely, if the accusations are false, the House and all involved deserve to have this cloud lifted immediately.”

Julie McCarty, president of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party, said in an email Friday that she was given the opportunity to listen to the recording and has been urged by others to do so. But she will not have time to travel to Austin.

“I trust Michael to determine if it’s best for the State of Texas to release the recording,” McCarty said.

Four days after the allegations were first raised, Bonnen publicly denied that a list of members was produced during the conversation. However, lawmakers who have listened to the recording this week have said otherwise.

In a post Wednesday, Sullivan threatened to release the recording to the public if Bonnen and Burrows did not not recant “false claims.” He also invited Republican 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.

Requests from news outlets and the office of a Democratic representative to listen to the audio have been denied.

Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, told radio show host Chad Hasty Thursday morning that he listened to the recording and that it supports Sullivan’s accusations. Stickland is not seeking re-election and has received over $400,000 from the Empower Texans PAC since 2012, according to the National Institute on Money in Politics.

Stickland said that in addition to offering long sought-after House press credentials for writers from Texas Scorecard — Empower Texans’ news site — Bonnen also said he could strip credentials from Scott Braddock, the editor of the political insider newsletter Quorum Report.

Stickland said he thinks Burrow and Bonnens will have to resign and are “dead politically.”

“I suspect his ego will force him to be thrown out as opposed to doing the right thing and stepping down,” McCarty said of Bonnen.

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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.