Texas Politics

Texas House committee to investigate allegations made against Speaker Bonnen

The powerful House General Investigating Committee announced Wednesday its intentions to investigate allegations of a quid-pro-quo offer made by the House speaker and House Republican Caucus chairman that have roiled the House since they were first raised nearly two weeks ago.

Shortly after Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, requested Wednesday that an “immediate full investigation” be launched, Rep. Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas, who chairs the committee, said a public hearing on the matter would be held Monday.

“Last night, I initiated internal discussion with General Investigating staff about procedure with the intention of launching an investigation,” Meyer said in a letter responding to Collier. “I look forward to working with you and our other committee members in bringing transparency, information access and accountability to this matter, and ensuring that we protect the integrity of our state government.”

Late last month, Michael Quinn Sullivan, CEO of the conservative political advocacy group Empower Texans, claimed that during a June 12 meeting with House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, and GOP Caucus Chairman Dustin Burrows, of Lubbock, long sought-after press credentials were offered in exchange for the targeting of 10 Republican incumbents in their re-election campaigns.

In Collier’s letter to Meyers, she said the matters to be investigated are “allegations relating to media credentials, as well as the circumstances and events surrounding a June 12, 2019 meeting, including any and all correspondence, statements and/or recordings related thereto.”

“The committee must investigate whether or not there has been a violation of any policy or rules that the committee is charged with overseeing,” Collier wrote.

The committee, composed of five House members, has the ability to issue subpoenas for witness testimony and related documents and evidence. If a person does not comply with a subpoena issued by the committee, he or she may be cited and prosecuted for contempt.

If the committee finds a rule or policy has been violated, it may also recommend disciplinary or remedial action be taken after a public hearing is held, according to the committee’s rules.

Monday’s hearing is set for 10 a.m. at the Texas Capitol.

Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, and chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, called for a recording of the meeting to be released to the public last week. He said in a statement Wednesday that he supports Collier’s request.

“Chair Collier is right to make this call and has my full support in this effort,” Turner said. “There are simply too many rumors about what was said or not said in this meeting for anyone who has not heard the recording to have confidence they have the truth. That’s why General Investigating should immediately take up this matter.”

The recording, which has not been released to the public, has been selectively shared with various lawmakers and Republican Party officials. Lawmakers who said they have listened to the recording said it largely supports Sullivan’s accusations. In addition, they have said that disparaging comments were made during the meeting and that Bonnen also said he could strip a journalist of his House press credentials.

Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, said in a Facebook post Wednesday that as a member of the committee, it would “not be appropriate or proper” to comment on specific allegations, but 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.”

Bonnen apologized to House members Tuesday in an email, of which the Star-Telegram obtained a copy. 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.”

While some Republican lawmakers, including Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, were quick to praise Bonnen for his apology, others who were on the alleged list of targets were not satisfied.

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, both of College Station; Stan Lambert, of Abilene; and Phil Stephenson, of Wharton.

In a statement Wednesday night, Allison said he listened to the recording and that Burrows and Bonnen’s comments are “quite disturbing and warrant further investigation and possible action by the Caucus, the House, or others.”

Allison said it’s time for them “to be held accountable for their actions” and that trust in their leadership “has been irreparably damaged.”

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.”

Sullivan, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment, was calling out House members on Twitter for accepting Bonnen’s apology.

In a post Wednesday morning, Sullivan doubled down on his insistence that lawmakers remain focused 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 the 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.”

Bonnen and Burrows did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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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.