In the hours after hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan exploded his political bombshell in late July — alleging House Speaker Dennis Bonnen wanted to target some of his own GOP members in 2020 — the lower chamber’s top Republican lawmaker made a series of phone calls to assure his flock that Sullivan was lying.
“This is Dennis,” the speaker said to a House member in a 22-second voicemail soon after Sullivan lobbed his allegations. “Hopefully, you know better than to believe anything Michael Quinn Sullivan would bother to say. … I did meet with him to tell him he should not campaign against any Republican in the primary — um, obviously the opposite of what he’s trying to present.”
Now that voicemail, obtained by The Texas Tribune, is giving more ammunition to critics who say it was Bonnen — not Sullivan — who has lied and misled the people who elevated him to the powerful elected position he could be in danger of losing.
Such a response from the speaker in the aftermath of Sullivan’s allegations, multiple members say, has prompted some to wonder whether the chamber will ever fully trust Bonnen again — or if the damage that’s been done is simply beyond repair. For House speakers, who owe their job not to nameless Texas voters but instead to a few dozen fellow members they know well, trust is the coin of the realm in the lower chamber.
At least five members on the alleged 10-person political target list were told either by Bonnen or by someone on his team that Sullivan’s allegations were downright false in the hours after the news broke, according to multiple people familiar with the matter.
In most cases, Bonnen batted down the allegations and questioned the credibility of Sullivan, who many state lawmakers already loathed thanks to his track record of criticizing — and, oftentimes, spending against — members in his own party.
In a statement to the Tribune late Wednesday, Bonnen’s office renewed the speaker’s call for Sullivan to release his secret recording of a June meeting from which his allegations stem.
“There is significant context missing from reports, namely, the hour long recording that has been strategically withheld from the public despite repeated calls from the Speaker, state leaders, and objective journalists for its release,” said Cait Meisenheimer, the speaker’s press secretary. “The Speaker believes that Members are owed the opportunity to draw their own conclusions based on the full context of the conversation — not the slow leak of cherry-picked information that has been used to fuel speculation.”
Since his immediate denial though, according to those familiar with the matter, the speaker hasn’t spoken with at least a few of those members who were allegedly mentioned during that June 12 meeting at the Texas Capitol between Bonnen, another top House Republican and Sullivan.
And though Bonnen has since apologized to members for saying “terrible things” during the meeting, he hasn’t directly addressed Sullivan’s allegations about a 10-member list — which has fed into a frustration that’s been simmering for almost two months among a broader coalition of Republicans.
“He’ll deny, deny, deny, a little more will come out, then he will dial back his denial and get a little more technical about it,” one person who works closely with multiple Republicans on the alleged target list told the Tribune. “It’s a constant walking back of previous details.”
The flap began on July 25, when Sullivan, who heads the hardline conservative Empower Texans, first alleged that Bonnen and one of his top allies offered Sullivan’s group long-denied House media credentials if its well-funded political action committee targeted 10 members in the 2020 primaries. Sullivan said the offer was made during the June 12 meeting at the Capitol. According to Sullivan, Bonnen referenced a “list” before leaving the room and allowing state Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican who at the time chaired his party’s caucus, to name the Republican members to target.
A day later, Bonnen sent an email to House Republicans with the subject line “Setting the record straight.” In that email, Bonnen pushed back against Sullivan’s account of the meeting, framing it instead as an attempt to convince the activist, long a thorn in the side of House leadership, to stop directing his group to spend money in GOP primary races ahead of an important 2020 general election.
Some House Republicans still had questions though, since Bonnen in his email never explicitly denied Sullivan’s specific allegation about a 10-member target list. The next week, Bonnen said in a statement that “at no point in our conversation was Sullivan provided with a list of target Members.”
Still, some members weren’t convinced. The speaker’s phrasing, some noted either privately or among one another, didn’t necessarily deny Sullivan’s accusation that it was Burrows — not Bonnen — who had listed off the targets during the meeting. Their skepticism was fueled by the fact that Burrows had largely gone silent with his caucus since the allegations surfaced.
Things began to shift again a few days later, when Sullivan revealed he had secretly recorded the June 12 meeting and would allow certain Republicans to listen to the audio privately. As Bonnen, along with various Republicans and Democrats began calling on Sullivan to release the audio, a number of House members began sharing their accounts of what they heard on the recording, with responses ranging from calls for Bonnen’s resignation to pushes for Sullivan to release the entire audio to the public.
A few days later, Bonnen apologized. “I said terrible things that are embarrassing to the members, to the House, and to me personally,” he wrote to House members in an email, which was met with mixed responses.
Bonnen and, more recently, Burrows have maintained that the point of the June 12 meeting was to convince Sullivan to avoid going after any Republicans in the 2020 elections. Several others have also come to the speaker’s defense after he issued his apology, taking to social media to say that Bonnen’s move was a good step forward for the caucus and House.
In an August interview after he resigned as caucus chair, Burrows told Lubbock radio host Chad Hasty that there was no “physical list” given to Sullivan during the meeting. Burrows did note, though, he suggested to Sullivan that should Empower Texans go after Republicans, the group should do it based on which members voted against a controversial taxpayer-funded lobbying bill during the 2019 legislative session.
Burrows said he “pulled up the record vote” on the legislation and listed names of GOP members that voted against it to Sullivan. Burrows described the listing of names as “very off the cuff.”
Multiple members on the alleged political target list say they have listened to the audio, which Sullivan has not yet made public. And a number of them — Steve Allison of San Antonio, Tan Parker of Flower Mound and Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches — have publicly knocked the speaker and Burrows over it.
“The seriousness of the conduct is compounded by Speaker Bonnen’s previous and persistent denials of statements and actions so clearly established in the recording,” Allison said in a statement on Aug. 7.
More recently, state Rep. Trent Ashby, a Lufkin Republican on the alleged list, was asked at an event about whether he’d be a yes or no for Bonnen if a vote for speaker was held today.
“It’s a good thing there’s not a vote today,” Ashby said with a smile.
For now though, the political fallout has appeared to slow down — at least publicly. And, to be clear, a vast majority of House Republicans have stayed silent on the allegations as members wait to see what, if anything, comes of an ongoing investigation by the Texas Rangers. A House committee asked the Rangers to investigate Sullivan’s allegation not long after he disclosed that he had recorded it.
But inside the Texas Capitol, particularly on the west side, where the 150-member lower chamber is located, multiple GOP members and staffers have described a situation that’s left some feeling frustrated.
Such a sentiment, members and staffers say, has been exacerbated by the fact that recent happenings which typically fly under the radar have received heightened attention — and have seemed to ruffle even more feathers within the GOP Caucus.
In August, Burrows resigned as chair of the caucus, a move that was seen by some as an attempt by House leadership to alleviate pressure among Republicans over the issue. That resignation prompted state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, to be elevated from vice chair to chair, which triggered an election to fill that vacancy as second in command.
Thirty House Republicans signed on to a letter to Klick requesting that the caucus hold an in-person election to fill the vice chair position. The drama involving Bonnen was not explicitly mentioned in the letter, though it was suggested by multiple members that the caucus, if it were to meet, would likely also discuss the allegations — and perhaps how to handle them.
That request was denied. The caucus’ executive committee said that electronic voting, which is allowed under the group’s bylaws for elections that take place when the Legislature is not in session, would “allow all members the opportunity to participate in the election, not just those who can travel to Austin in September.”
Two members of the caucus sent letters to Klick asking her to reconsider, with one of them, state Rep. John Smithee, a senior House Republican from Amarillo, stating that the group “has a Texas-sized mess on its hands.”
Requests for an in-person election aside, the two-way race for vice chair between state Reps. Jim Murphy of Houston and Andrew Murr of Junction, some GOP members say, will be seen as a test to see who’s with Bonnen — and who’s not. Many Republicans believe that Murphy is the speaker's preferred candidate for the job. The election for the position closes Friday evening.
It’s unclear whether Sullivan plans to release his secret recording of the June 12 meeting any time soon. Sullivan, who did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday afternoon, posted on Twitter before the publishing of this story that the voicemail left by Bonnen “is apparently ANOTHER false claim that he has yet to retract.”
“Time and truth are not on the speaker’s side,” said state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, a Sullivan ally and Bedford Republican who has been a thorn in Bonnen’s side throughout the speaker’s first term.
After listening to the voicemail, Stickland, a Bonnen antagonist who has also listened to the recording, said it fit the description of statements he heard Bonnen was giving privately to other members in the immediate aftermath of Sullivan’s explosive revelations.
“He’s just lied and manipulated too many people frankly,” Stickland said. “A lot of times the cover up is worse than the crime.”