Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen apologized Tuesday to members for taking a meeting with hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan that has since thrown the lower chamber into chaos — and he's facing mixed reviews from both Republicans and Democrats in the lower chamber over his apology.
“I was stupid to take a meeting with an individual who has worked hard to divide our House,” Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, wrote to House members in an email. “I said terrible things that are embarrassing to the members, to the House, and to me personally.”
Bonnen was referring to a June 12 meeting with Sullivan, CEO of Empower Texans, who has accused Bonnen and state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, of offering his group House media credentials if the organization targeted a list of 10 GOP members in the 2020 primaries. Sullivan later revealed he had secretly recorded the meeting — and called on both Bonnen and Burrows to "recant their false claims." If they did not, Sullivan said, he would feel obligated to release the recording, though he did note he would allow certain Republicans to listen to the audio in the meantime.
Bonnen has forcefully pushed back against Sullivan’s account of the meeting multiple times. And Burrows has not responded publicly to the allegations.
Later Tuesday, state Rep. Tan Parker, a Flower Mound Republican and former chair of the House GOP Caucus, released a scathing statement that seemed to undermine Bonnen's apology — and further support Sullivan's allegations.
"I listened to the recording and it was very apparent that our Speaker and Caucus Chairman did engage in targeting specific members of the Republican Caucus," Parker said. "I find this reckless ambition to be absolutely disgusting. Their actions directly contradict the bylaws and culture of our Caucus. The disparaging commentary that was also heard was the epitome of disrespect and a clear attack on the values of the Republican Party and the integrity we have established in the Texas House."
Among those who have spoken out about listening to the recording, Parker released comments that have the potential to be the most damaging to Bonnen. Over the past week, various Republicans listened to the audio and went public with details, but faced skepticism over receiving past campaign donations from Empower Texans' well-funded political action committee or for having a complicated history with the speaker.
But Parker, who is on the alleged 10-member target list, doesn't have those Empower Texan ties. He also ran for speaker in 2018, but bowed out early and later endorsed Bonnen for the job.
Meanwhile, at least four of Bonnen's lieutenants in the House came to the speaker's defense publicly for the first time since Sullivan's allegations surfaced.
"I've made mistakes & Speaker Bonnen has made a mistake," state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, said on Twitter. "This is a strong statement from our Speaker that exhibits humility, admits missteps & seeks to make/rebuild the trust that has been broken. This starts the healing to move the House forward to build on the 86th."
State Rep. Jeff Leach, a Plano Republican, tweeted a similar statement, chalking up the speaker's apology to "a great step forward for him and the Texas House."
Bonnen and other House members have called on Sullivan to release the entire recording, which has not yet been made public. In his Tuesday email, which was obtained by The Texas Tribune, Bonnen called again for the "entire unedited recording" to be released "so the House is no longer held hostage, and we can begin to heal."
Still, Bonnen in his email did not explicitly address Sullivan's allegation that he and Burrows offered Empower Texans media credentials in exchange for targeting 10 GOP members, which is arguably the largest sticking point for House Republicans. At the end of the 86th legislative session, Bonnen told reporters he would not tolerate incumbents campaigning against fellow House members in future elections. Bonnen's remarks came as Democrats, still bullish from the dozen House seats the party picked up in 2018, began to eye the nine seats they would need to flip in 2020 to gain control of the lower chamber. Some Republicans, including Empower Texans and others aligned with the further right wing of the party, criticized Bonnen for not publicly taking a more aggressive approach ahead of an election cycle that could play a role in the 2021 redistricting process.
On Tuesday, Sullivan dismissed Bonnen's apology to members, saying on Twitter that Bonnen was essentially only "apologizing for getting caught saying bad things." Sullivan asked when Bonnen planned to "withdraw his false claims and lies" against him and whether the speaker would "apologize for making the unethical offer of official actions in exchange for attacking his targets."
It's unclear whether Sullivan plans to release the recording — or when he would do so. Some have suggested it would hurt the Republicans if the audio came out, partly because a number of those who have listened to it said the speaker and Burrows make disparaging comments about House members.
Sullivan previously said that two House Democrats — Jon Rosenthal of Houston and Michelle Beckley of Carrollton — were the subject of “amusing (if slightly vulgar)” comments by Bonnen at the meeting. A comment was made about Rosenthal's sexuality, according to multiple lawmakers and political operatives who said they listened to the recording.
Rosenthal, despite those allegations, said Tuesday evening that he had accepted Bonnen's apology.
"When I first heard what Speaker Bonnen said about me, I was shocked and disappointed," Rosenthal said in a joint statement with the speaker. "Speaker Bonnen reached out to me, and we ended up having a long, thoughtful and emotional conversation about the comments he made. He made a mistake, as all humans do. He apologized, and I forgave him."
Beckley also said she had accepted the speaker's apology and wanted to move on and focus on larger issues, such as gun violence.
"I understand the speaker of the House should not be saying these things," Beckley told the Tribune. "I've talked to many of my Republican counterparts, and I think [Bonnen] is going to have a really hard time being re-elected speaker of the House. As a human being though, I understand you can say things in the heat of the moment."