The Dennis Bonnen recording is out. Here's what you need to know.

A just-released recording of a June 12 meeting between House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan could have major implications for the House and Texas Republicans, who are trying to fend off bullish Democrats from potentially flipping the lower chamber in 2020.

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen.

*Editor's note: A version of this story was originally published Aug. 1, 2019. It has been updated throughout.

A June meeting between Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan was the subject of much speculation until Tuesday when Sullivan, who secretly recorded the meeting, made the audio public.

Bonnen urged Sullivan to target members of the House in the 2020 GOP primaries. The speaker offered press credentials to the House floor for conservative nonprofit Empower Texans, of which Sullivan is CEO. State Rep. Dustin Burrows, who chairs the House GOP Caucus, was also in the room.

The accounts of what happened on June 12 could have major implications for the House and even Texas Republicans, who are trying to fend off bullish Democrats from potentially flipping the lower chamber in 2020. Here's what you need to know.

Who is Michael Quinn Sullivan?

Sullivan is the CEO of Austin-based Empower Texans, a nonprofit promoting fiscal conservatism with a well-funded political action committee. Sullivan and the group clashed often with the new speaker during the 2019 legislative session, arguing that a bevy of conservative priorities championed by the state party failed to pass — and that Bonnen was to blame. Sullivan's group operates a well-funded political action committee that has long waded into GOP primary races and has built a reputation for sometimes using controversial tactics to help push its cause.

In July, on his organization’s website, Sullivan posted his account of the June 12 meeting, which was held at the Texas Capitol. Sullivan also threatened to release recorded audio of the meeting if Bonnen and Burrows did not "recant the lies and misrepresentations he has made." The audio was posted on Tuesday on Sullivan's website and the website of WBAP, a talk radio station in Dallas on which Sullivan appeared Tuesday morning.

Sullivan sent Bonnen a letter rejecting his offer on June 19.

What is Bonnen's response?

An hour after the recording was released Tuesday, Bonnen in a statement called it “clear evidence … disproving allegations of criminal wrongdoing.”

What about Burrows?

Burrows resigned as chair of the House GOP Caucus on Aug. 16.

Burrows in his own statement Tuesday said he was happy the recording had been released and that he now planned to focus "on what is important: passing conservative legislation for future generations and the needs of West Texans."

How have political observers and House Republicans reacted?

While its release prompted immediate outcry from Democrats and silence from Republicans, Bonnen said in a statement that the audio makes clear he did nothing criminally wrong in the conversation, adding that the "House can finally move on." The Texas Rangers are investigating the matter at the request of the House General Investigating Committee.

Are Bonnen's actions illegal?

That's still unclear. Experts said what Bonnen did may constitute bribery, abuse of official capacity and extortion, among other things.

An hour after the recording was released Tuesday, Bonnen in a statement called it “clear evidence … disproving allegations of criminal wrongdoing.”

Sullivan said Tuesday he’s “never alleged Bonnen did anything criminal” but "it was unethical."

What Bonnen did may qualify as bribery, but it’s not clear that what Bonnen outlined in the meeting meets the definition, experts said. To break Texas’ law against bribery, an elected official must offer or solicit a benefit that offers personal financial gain. A media credential might indirectly help a news outlet make money, but that may be too far a stretch to qualify under the bribery statute, said Sam Bassett, president of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. Experts pointed out that prosecutors could also look to the state’s law against abuse of official capacity or its prohibition against extortion. But those statues are similarly narrow.

Beyond the criminal path, there might be a civil case against the speaker. Democrats were in court in Travis County Tuesday pressing forward with their lawsuit arguing that Sullivan’s recording revealed serious violations of Texas campaign finance law. The party, along with state Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos, D-Richardson, sued Sullivan in August, demanding the release of the full recording of the meeting.

What do media credentials have to do with it?

House media credentials provide organizations like The Texas Tribune and The Dallas Morning News access to the chamber floor when the Legislature is in session. Texas Scorecard has long been denied those credentials because it is affiliated with a PAC that tries to influence legislation and elections. After the organization's application for credentials was turned down earlier this year — despite being approved in the Senate — the outlet sued the House Administration Committee chairman, arguing its rejection amounted to “unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.” A federal district judge dismissed the case, and Empower Texans is appealing.

Who is on the 10-member list of House Republicans?

Bonnen told Sullivan that Burrows would list members to potentially target in the 2020 primaries. Bonnen could be heard leaving the room before Burrows listed off the names of Republicans Sullivan’s group could target in 2020. Burrows did not explicitly endorse primary challenges against the 10 members but made clear in at least one case that he didn't want to see one of them return.

In that exchange, Burrows did not explicitly endorse primary challenges against the 10 members but made clear in at least one case that he didn't want to see one of them return.

"Clardy's the ringleader of all opposition," Burrows tells Sullivan, referring to state Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches. "We would be thrilled to see Clardy, somebody else, come back in that district."

House members on the target list are:

Other House members mentioned:

Who is investigating?

Texas House General Investigating Committee, which has subpoena power, requested a probe on Aug. 12 by the state’s elite investigative unit, the Texas Rangers into allegations that Bonnen offered Sullivan's organization media credentials in exchange for politically targeting a list of Republican House members.

With that investigation ongoing and little word from Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne, who is expected to make the decision on whether to bring a criminal charge, there’s been ample room for speculation — which only escalated after the secret recording was made public Tuesday morning. In Capitol circles, the rule is generally: Don’t offer official tit for political tat. But whether the smudging of those boundaries constitutes criminal activity is a case-by-case consideration, a decision ultimately made by a prosecutor and, if it gets that far, a jury.

What were Bonnen's disrespectful comments?

In the recording, Bonnen makes several disparaging comments about Democrats — specifically, state Reps. Michelle Beckley of Carrollton and Jon Rosenthal of Houston.

Bonnen: I can't stand [Richardson Democratic state Rep.] Ana-Maria Ramos. I mean Jon Rosenthal makes my skin crawl. He’s a piece of shit. [Bonnen Chief of Staff] Gavin Massingill said it well — begging this is all confidential — after we meet with [Rosenthal] the first time, he leaves us … and he said well his wife is going to be really pissed when she learns he's gay."

The men in the room laugh just before Bonnen affirms he agrees.

Rosenthal previously said he forgave Bonnen for what Bonnen said in the recording. In a new statement released Tuesday, Rosenthal said he’s “focused on people.”

"At the end of the day,” he said, “if you’re not making the lives of everyday people better — then you don’t deserve to be in office,” Rosenthal said.

Stacy Fernández, Cassi Pollock, Troy Closson and Lara Korte contributed to this story.

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