Texas Politics

Democratic Party sues Empower Texans CEO, House Speaker, seeks recording of meeting

The Texas Democratic Party is suing conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Republican Caucus Chairman Dustin Burrows, alleging that a June meeting between the three resulted in the creation of an unregistered political action committee and violated a slew of state election laws.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Travis County District Court, alleges that Sullivan’s June 12 meeting with Bonnen and Burrows “amounted a coordination meeting between political actors intended to influence the election or defeat of specific candidates” and therefore formed a political action committee that is subject to reporting rules and requirements under state law.

Sullivan and the “unknown named political action committee” are named as defendants. According to the lawsuit, the committee includes Bonnen, Sullivan and “perhaps others working in concert to attempt to defeat members of the Texas House of Representatives.”

The lawsuit claims that Bonnen and Burrows’ alleged directive to Sullivan to use Empower Texans PAC money to go after a list of 10 Republican incumbents violates state campaign finance law. In addition, the lawsuit claims the alleged quid pro quo offer of long sought-after press credentials for writers of an Empower Texans-affiliated site in exchange for going after elected officials is illegal and violates state law.

Furthermore, the lawsuit alleges that the actions during the June meeting are not permitted in the Texas Capitol, and also violated a fundraising moratorium imposed on state lawmakers and legislative caucuses.

The lawsuit seeks the release of a secret recording Sullivan later revealed he took of the meeting, any correspondence related to the meeting — including between Sullivan, Bonnen and Burrows — and over $100,000 in damages.

Sullivan, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment, took to Twitter shortly after the lawsuit was filed.

“Let me see if I follow,” Sullivan wrote. Bonnen “tried to make me a victim of an unethical quid pro quo scheme. I blew the whistle on it. Now the@texasdemocrats are trying to victimize me with a frivolous lawsuit. Look forward to kicking Donkey butt in court.”

“I don’t start fights, but we finish them,” Sullivan wrote.

Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos, D-Richardson, is also named as a plaintiff in the suit, as one of the lawmakers allegedly named in the recording who was “a target of the coordinated political efforts between the Speaker and Sullivan.”

“It is my duty to fight in the best interest of everyday Texans, not the powerful, wealthy or well-connected,” Ramos said in a statement. “That is why I am pursuing this lawsuit to shine light on the back rooms of the Texas Capitol.”

Sullivan, the CEO of the political advocacy group Empower Texans, alleged two weeks ago that during the June meeting with Bonnen and Burrows, Bonnen offered House press credentials in exchange for Empower Texans to target 10 Republican incumbents in their re-election campaigns, while laying off others.

Bonnen, who publicly denied a list was produced, and Burrows, who has not publicly commented since the allegations were first raised, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“Texans are fed up with back-room deals and unaccountable politicians who put the pursuit of power over everything,” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement. “These accounts of Speaker Bonnen and Republican Chair Burrow’s comments show they don’t give a damn about the needs of Texans or the respect due to their fellow members elected by the people.”

The powerful House General Investigating Committee, which has subpoena powers, announced Wednesday its intentions to investigate the allegations. The committee is scheduled to hold a public hearing 10 a.m. Monday at the Texas Capitol on the matter.

Despite calls for the recording to be released publicly — including from Bonnen himself — it has been selectively shared by Sullivan with Republican lawmakers and party officials.

Those who have listened to the recording have said it largely supports Sullivan’s accusations, and that disparaging comments were made in addition to Bonnen saying he could strip a journalist of his House press credentials.

In an email to House members earlier this week, Bonnen apologized for meeting with Sullivan and admitted to saying “terrible things.” While some Republican lawmakers praised Bonnen for his apology and offered their support, a growing number of lawmakers have also called for the Speaker’s resignation and an investigation on the matter.

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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.