Texas House speaker scandal is all the worst parts of politics. Now, it may be criminal

The scandal over House Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s meeting with a staunchly conservative activist personifies everything in politics that makes people sick.

There’s the brazen hypocrisy of Bonnen’s preening in public about unity and threatening to punish any lawmaker who worked to defeat a House incumbent, and then apparently asking an outside agitator to do just that against several members of his own party.

There’s the influence of big-dollar donors and their group allegedly being offered access to lawmakers via press passes reserved for journalists monitoring the public’s business.

And on Monday, the House added a ridiculous dollop of closed-door decision making. Its investigative committee convened to consider the Bonnen affair and somehow concluded that the public need not be involved. The panel spent just about its entire meeting in executive session before voting to hand the matter to the Texas Rangers.

Bonnen, an Angleton Republican coming off his first session as the House’s leader, met in June with Michael Quinn Sullivan, the leader of Empower Texans, a hard-right group funded primarily by West Texas oilman Tim Dunn. The group has been a thorn in the side of establishment Republicans.

Sullivan alleged that Bonnen and one of his deputies, Rep. Dustin Burrows of Lubbock, asked him to target 10 Republican lawmakers for defeat in primaries. In exchange, the activist said, Bonnen offered help getting access to the House floor for writers from his Texas Scorecard site.

Bonnen denied a quid pro quo, but Sullivan soon revealed he had a recording of the meeting. He’s played it for a handful of lawmakers and GOP consultants, and all so far say it backs up Sullivan’s version of events. Bonnen has apologized for some of the things he said but denied making a direct offer.

That’s what led to Monday’s hearing. And suddenly, what seemed like an odd, even a little entertaining, political drama has incredibly high stakes.

Few people other than lawmakers and Capitol reporters care much about internal House politics. But now, the state’s premier law enforcement unit is involved.

The Rangers should have better things to do. But lawmakers decided a few years ago to assign to them the Public Integrity Unit that’s responsible for investigating allegations of corruption by elected officials.

With possible violations of campaign finance and bribery laws at issue, it’s time for a thorough investigation. And there’s an important protocol question here. The anti-corruption unit used to be housed in the Travis County District Attorney’s office. When Republicans pushed through a change on that, they set up a system under which possible charges are referred to prosecutors in a public official’s home county.

The fact that the House called for this probe must not derail that process. The investigations committee’s chairman, Republican Rep. Morgan Meyer of Dallas, pledged Monday that nothing in the House’s request should alter the Rangers other obligations. The DAs in question must take seriously the Rangers’ findings and pursue charges if warranted.

This whole incident is the kind of thing that inspires deep cynicism over politics. What looked like the most internecine of fights could linger for months and seep into House races, which are getting under way. Investigations like this are politically sticky, so we urge Gov. Greg Abbott to take a hands-off approach and let the Rangers do their work unimpeded by political concerns.

The public needs a thorough, quick accounting of what happened here, and leaders like Bonnen must be held accountable for their actions — either in the courtroom or in the political realm.

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Editorial cartoonist Dick Collier’s take on House Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s meeting with activist Michael Quinn Sullivan. Dick Collier
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