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Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen Offered Media Access To Empower Texans, Suggested It Target Certain Republicans, Recording Shows

By Cassandra Pollock, Texas Tribune

During a June conversation at the Texas Capitol, Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen urged hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan to target members of their own party in the 2020 primaries and suggested he could get Sullivan’s group media access to the House floor, according to a secret recording of the conversation released Tuesday.

The 64-minute recording of Sullivan's June meeting with Bonnen and another top GOP member was posted on Sullivan's website and the  website of WBAP, a talk radio station in Dallas where Sullivan was scheduled to appear Tuesday morning.

Roughly nine minutes into the recording, after discussing Sullivan’s recent trip to Europe, Bonnen tells Sullivan he’s “trying to win in 2020 in November.”

“Is there any way that for 2020 we sort of say … let’s not spend millions of dollars fighting in primaries when we need to spend millions of dollars trying to win in November,” Bonnen says. “I wanted to see if we could try and figure that out. … If you need some primaries to fight in — I will leave and Dustin will tell you some we’d love if you fought in. Not that you need our permission.”

Sullivan is CEO of Empower Texans, a group that's flooded with oil money and a unique tangle of political lobbying firm, news outlet and deep-pocketed political action committee. The group is perhaps best known for playing heavily in Republican primary elections, targeting Republicans it considers "squishy" and backing more hardline conservatives. In the 2018 election cycle, candidates and PACs reported receiving some $4.7 million from the Empower Texans PAC.

Roughly five minutes later, the speaker said, “Let me tell you what I can do for you. Real quick, you need to hear what I want to do for you.”

“I don’t need anything,” Sullivan responded.

“Well, no you do,” Bonnen said. “We can make this work. I’ll put your guys on the floor next session.”

“Or take them off,” Sullivan suggested.

Amid laughs, Bonnen said, ‘Here’s what I won’t do. I’ll do what [Lt. Gov. Dan] Patrick did — and I’ll take Braddock off” the House floor, referring to Scott Braddock, a reporter for the Capitol insider publication Quorum Report.

Empower Texans, a longtime critic of House leadership, has sought to gain media credentials to the floor of the lower chamber, where members of the press can roam to speak with staffers and legislators. After the group was denied access for the 2019 legislative session because of ties to a lobbying organization, it sued the House Administration Committee’s chairman over it, arguing the rejection was “unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.”

Before Bonnen made his offer, he also disparaged a number of House Democrats. The speaker said state Rep.  Jon Rosenthal, a Houston Democrat, “makes my skin crawl” and is “a piece of shit.” Bonnen, after "begging this is all confidential,"  then recounted a meeting with the freshman, after which he asked his chief of staff, Gavin Massingill, what he thought about the new House member.

“Massingill said it best,” Bonnen recalled. “Well, his wife’s gonna be really pissed when she learns he’s gay.”

The room dissolved in laughter before Bonnen turned to other members of the lower chamber’s minority party.

"We've got  Michelle Beckley, who's vile," he said, referring to the freshman Democrat from Carrollton who unseated a Republican in 2018. He exhorted Sullivan to help target these Democrats in competitive districts.

Sullivan first disclosed that the meeting happened in late July, saying that Bonnen offered his advocacy group, Empower Texans, media credentials on the House floor if the group targeted 10 Republican members of the Texas House. Bonnen and state Rep.  Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, pushed back against those allegations, though the speaker later apologized for saying "terrible things" during the meeting and Burrows resigned as chair of the House GOP Caucus. Both Bonnen and Burrows said the point of that June meeting was to convince Sullivan to stop trying to unseat certain Republicans in the primaries.

To the offering of media credentials, Bonnen has also told House members, specifically in an email to them after Sullivan's allegations surfaced, that he "knew, at the end of the day, the House rules — not the Speaker — determine who gets media credentials."

Sullivan had refused to make the recording of the meeting public for weeks, despite requests from Bonnen, the media and other GOP leaders. Nonetheless, his description of the meeting has unsettled the political order of the 150-member House.

The Texas Tribune was unable to immediately verify whether Sullivan’s recording had been edited. Reporters at the Tribune are listening to Sullivan’s recording and will update this story soon.

Emma Platoff contributed reporting.