Texas Politics

Bonnen admits to saying ‘terrible things.’ Lawmaker on target list urges investigation

House Speaker Dennis Bonnen apologized to House members in an email Tuesday for meeting with a conservative activist who has raised allegations that access was offered in exchange for targeting Republican incumbents.

Bonnen, who has previously denied the allegations, said the meeting was a mistake and that he said “terrible things that are embarrassing to the members, to the House, and to me personally,” according to a copy of the email obtained by the Star-Telegram.

“I’m sorry. I was stupid to take a meeting with an individual who has worked hard to divide our House,” Bonnen wrote. “It was a mistake.”

The allegations have roiled the House since they were first raised late last month by Michael Quinn Sullivan, the CEO of the political advocacy group Empower Texans.

Sullivan has 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 elections while going after others.

Lawmakers who listened to the recording have said it largely supports Sullivan’s account. In addition, they have said disparaging comments were made during the meeting and that Bonnen also said he could strip a journalist of his House press credentials.

The list of lawmakers targeted reportedly includes 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.

In a statement Tuesday, Parker said it was “very apparent” after listening to a recording of the meeting that Republican members were targeted and said the GOP Caucus, which he chaired previously, has “a duty to investigate.”

“I find this reckless ambition to be absolutely disgusting,” Parker said. “The disparaging commentary that was also heard was the epitome of disrespect and a clear attack on the values of the Republican Party and the integrity we have established in the Texas House.”

Stephenson told the Wharton Journal-Spectator that he hopes Bonnen resigns and that it would be “the honorable thing to do.”

The recording has yet to be released to the public, which Bonnen again called for, in his email to members Tuesday.

Sullivan, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment, took to Twitter after Bonnen’s email was sent and stressed that he is still waiting for answers.

In a post Wednesday morning after some lawmakers had accepted Bonnen’s apology, Sullivan doubled down on his insistence that lawmakers focus on the allegations raised. Sullivan wrote that the lawmakers on the alleged list are “on the whole bad news for Texas taxpayers,” and said he would have supported their challengers financially on his own — without Bonnen’s alleged offer — if they had earned his endorsement.

“The problem is not what lawmakers are forgiving, it is what they are willfully ignoring,” Sullivan wrote. “He wants forgiveness for saying bad things behind people’s backs, but hopes his fellow Republicans will ignore his attempted public corruption and secret attacks on them.”

Speaking directly to lawmakers, Sullivan wrote on Twitter Tuesday: “To whom did they give your name? Or when will they find you expendable?”

Sullivan previously said that during the June meeting “amusing (if slightly vulgar) comments” were also made about Democratic Reps. Michelle Beckley of Carrollton and Joe Rosenthal of Houston.

In a joint statement with Bonnen on Tuesday night, Rosenthal said he was “shocked and disappointed” when he first heard Bonnen’s remarks, but was looking forward to putting it in the past after a “thoughtful and emotional” conversation with him.

“He apologized and I forgave him,” Rosenthal said in a statement.

Bonnen said he is “forever grateful” and “will not forget the lesson in character and sincerity.”

However, in a statement Wednesday morning, Beckley said she was disappointed she had yet to hear from the Speaker personally.

“Imagine my surprise to learn that the speaker had personally reached out to my male counterparts to offer a personal apology and open dialogue to discuss his crude comments,” Beckley said. “In a chamber where 33 women serve, 22% of the entire body, are we not due the same respect our male colleagues are given?”

“Mr. Speaker, where is my apology?”

While a handful of Republican lawmakers took to Twitter to show support for Bonnen’s apology, others said it was not enough.

Bonnen “admits, like the rest of us, he is actually human. He made a mistake and is imperfect but has apologized for his actions and has taken responsibility for them. No excuses,” Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, wrote on Twitter. “I choose forgiveness.”

Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, said: “We cannot just move forward as if this meeting didn’t happen. He has put a stain on the Texas House that is unprecedented and he should resign.”

In a Facebook post Wednesday morning, Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, said that he would not comment on specific allegations due to the chance the matter is brought before the House General Investigating Committee, which he sits on. However, he stressed that action should be taken if wrongdoing is found.

“The body should move deliberately and be sober-minded,” Krause wrote. “We should not condemn anyone arbitrarily but also must not be scared to move forward if we find evidence of wrongdoing.”

James Dickey, the chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, met with Sullivan last week before Sullivan revealed the recording’s existence.

“Any actions of our party leaders require full information before they trigger a formal process,” Dickey wrote in a Facebook post Saturday. “We are a bottom-up party, with all major actions and stances set by the delegates and voters. This is no exception.”

House Democrats called for the recording to be released in its entirety last week. Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, and chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said that, if true, allegations would likely need to be “investigated by appropriate authorities.”

In a post last week, Sullivan threatened to release the recording to the public if Bonnen and Burrows — who has yet to comment publicly — 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.

Here’s what the email said:

“Dear Members,

I’m sorry. I was stupid to take a meeting with an individual who has worked hard to divide our House. It was a mistake.

I said terrible things that are embarrassing to the members, to the House, and to me personally. You know me well enough to know I say things with no filter. That’s not an excuse for the hurtful things I said or the discussion that was had.

Once again, I call for the release of the entire unedited recording so the House is no longer held hostage, and we can begin to heal.

I have reached out to many of you, and I want to visit with all of you. I hope I have the chance to apologize to you personally.

I am truly sorry from the bottom of my heart. I ask for your forgiveness, and I hope to rebuild your trust.

-Dennis”

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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.
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