Texas Politics

Committee asks Texas Rangers to investigate House speaker’s meeting with Empower Texans

After meeting behind closed doors for nearly an hour, the House General Investigating Committee unanimously voted Monday to request the Texas Rangers Public Integrity Unit conduct an investigation into allegations of a quid pro quo offer made by the House speaker.

“It is the committee’s intention in adopting the motion that any investigation should follow the facts and the evidence without regard to political considerations,” said Rep. Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas, and chairman of the committee.

The unit has subpoena powers and may receive assistance from local law enforcement or state agencies. The committee also requested a copy of the Rangers’ final investigative report be provided to the committee at the conclusion of the investigation.

In a statement Monday night, the Department of Public Safety said based on the committee’s request, “the Texas Rangers are conducting an initial inquiry into this matter and will consult with the appropriate prosecutor.”

The allegations surrounding House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, were raised a little more than two weeks ago by Michael Quinn Sullivan, the CEO of the conservative political advocacy group Empower Texans. They revolve around a June 12 meeting between Sullivan, Bonnen and GOP Caucus Chairman Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock.

Sullivan claims that during the meeting Bonnen offered long sought-after press credentials for the organization’s news site in exchange for Empower Texans’ firepower to go against 10 Republican incumbents during their re-election campaigns. Sullivan later revealed he secretly recorded the meeting, and those who have listened to it have said it largely support Sullivan’s accusations.

“Speaker Bonnen fully supports the committee’s decision and has complete faith in the House rules and committee process working as they are intended,” a spokeswoman for Bonnen said shortly after the hearing.

In a statement, Sullivan said he is pleased with the committee’s actions.

“While I am disappointed Speaker Dennis Bonnen and State Rep. Dustin Burrows chose the course they did to deceive the public about our June 12 meeting, I’m glad the Texas House General Investigating Committee appears to be searching for the truth,” Sullivan said in the statement.

Burrows, who has yet to comment publicly, did not immediately return a request for comment.

Lawmakers and onlookers packed a House hearing room Monday in anticipation of the committee’s public hearing. But to the frustration of some in the audience, the committee quickly entered into a closed-door executive session just minutes after it began.

With no witnesses set to testify, the five House members on the committee — three Republicans and two Democrats — left the room shortly after taking a moment of silence to honor the El Paso shooting victims. Meyer said no decisions were voted on in the closed-door meeting.

Rep. Leo Pacheco, D-San Antonio, who is a member of the committee, said the committee will request a status report be issued within 30 days of the investigation, in addition to the final report to the committee. Pacheco said he would like to see the recording be released “at the end.”

“I’m pleased that we’re going this route because you don’t know what’s in the pickle barrel until you take the lid off of it,” Pacheco said.

The Rangers’ Public Integrity Unit has the authority to investigate complaints regarding “an offense against public administration,” according to government code. And if there is suspicion an offense occurred after an initial investigation has been conducted, the unit can refer the matter to the prosecuting attorney of the county “in which the venue is proper.”

While the committee has subpoena powers, Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, and vice-chair of the committee, said in a statement members unanimously agreed that the Rangers were “the appropriate entity to investigate this matter.”

Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton, also attended Monday’s hearing. Beckley, one of the Democratic lawmakers reportedly disparaged on the recording, said in a statement that while she was initially disappointed that the committee went into executive session, that she supports the committee’s decision. Beckley urged for the recording, along with the Rangers’ full report, to be released to the public.

Beckley said Bonnen reached out to her personally after she issued a statement last week seeking an apology, but declined to go into detail about their conversation.

“I don’t think he can come back from this,” Beckley said.

Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, also attended, and called on Meyer last week to have the hearing open to the public and allow lawmakers to sit in on any closed-door session.

Raymond said he received no response to his letter, and that the recording, which he called “the fourth expert witness,” should be made public.

“That was my hope that was where the committee was going,” Raymond said. “I think all of us, especially who serve in the House, would like to know for ourselves exactly what transpired.”

Prior to Monday’s hearing, concerns were raised over potential conflicts of interest, with some pointing to the fact that two members of the committee — Meyer and Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth — had received in-kind contributions from Bonnen’s campaign.

According to campaign finance reports, Meyer and Krause each received nearly $20,000 worth of polling services from Bonnen’s campaign in June.

In a Facebook post Saturday, Krause stressed the contribution was unsolicited and that he had no knowledge of the June 12 meeting at the time he was notified of the contribution.

“Some are saying I need to ‘give the contribution back.’ There is no contribution to give back,” Krause wrote. “I guess I could give the results of the poll back, but I am not sure what that accomplishes.”

The highly anticipated hearing came days after the Texas Democratic Party filed a lawsuit against Sullivan, Bonnen and Burrows over the June 12 meeting, and was quickly scheduled last week after a growing number of calls for the allegations to be investigated and for the recording to be released to the public.

Details surrounding the allegations have slowly trickled out.

First raised in a post on the group’s affiliated news site, Texas Scorecard, Sullivan claimed that he sent a letter to Bonnen’s office denying the alleged offer. Sullivan included a copy of Bonnen’s letter in response, but declined to share a copy of his own.

In response to a records request from the Star-Telegram seeking correspondence between Bonnen and Sullivan, Bonnen’s office declined to provide copies of the letters, citing a section of government code that allows a member of the legislature to withhold correspondence that involves a private citizen.

Friday night, Bonnen’s office reversed its decision, and said Sullivan waived confidentiality for the letter he sent. In the June 19 letter, Sullivan said he expected the meeting with Bonnen to be about “a plea for GOP unity, or to hear complaints about our session coverage,” and instead was “quite surprised” by what transpired.

“To remove any doubt with regard to our refusal of your offer, allow me to state the obvious,” Sullivan wrote. “I and the organizations I lead will make decisions to engage in whatever actions to support or oppose candidates completely independent of your offer.”

Bonnen has publicly denied that a list of lawmakers was produced, but has admitted to saying “terrible things” during the meeting.

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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.