The powerful Texas House General Investigating Committee is set to launch an investigation into allegations that Speaker Dennis Bonnen offered a hardline conservative organization media credentials if it politically targeted certain Republican members in the lower chamber.
"Last night, I initiated internal discussion with General Investigating staff about procedure with the intention of launching an investigation. Our committee will be posting notice today of a public hearing which will take place on Monday, August 12," state Rep. Morgan Meyer, a Dallas Republican who chairs the committee, said in a letter dated Wednesday.
He was writing to state Rep. Nicole Collier, a Fort Worth Democrat who serves as vice chair. Earlier Wednesday, Collier wrote to Meyer requesting he "launch an immediate full investigation" into "whether not there has been a violation of any policy or rules that the committee is charged with overseeing."
Collier specifically asked for an investigation into “the allegations relating to media credentials, as well as the circumstances and events surrounding a June 12, 2019 meeting, including any and all correspondence, statements and/or recordings related thereto."
For the past two weeks, the House has been embroiled over the meeting between Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, and Michael Quinn Sullivan, who serves as CEO of Empower Texans. Sullivan alleged that Bonnen and state Rep. Dustin Burrows, who chairs the House GOP Caucus, said Empower Texans would receive long-denied media credentials in the lower chamber if its well-funded political action committee targeted 10 Republicans in the 2020 primaries. Sullivan later revealed he had secretly recorded the meeting.
Bonnen, who was first elected speaker in January, has forcefully disputed Sullivan’s account of the meeting. And on Monday, he emailed members an apology for saying “terrible things that are embarrassing to the members, to the House, and to me personally” — but did not explicitly mention Sullivan’s alleged quid pro quo offered by the speaker.
The General Investigating Committee, comprised of five House members, has sweeping jurisdiction and holds subpoena power. A person who disobeys a subpoena by the committee may be cited for contempt or prosecuted for contempt, according to House rules, which were adopted at the beginning of the 86th legislative session in January. The committee can also meet at any time or place and has the jurisdiction to enter into a closed-door meeting if deemed necessary.
Since Sullivan revealed he had recorded the meeting, Bonnen, along with a number of Republicans and Democrats, have called for the audio to be released. Sullivan hasn’t yet indicated when — or if — he will.
State Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat who chairs his party’s caucus, said in a statement Wednesday that Collier “is right to make this call and has my full support in this effort.” He added that the committee should take up the allegations because “there are simply too many rumors about what was said or not said in this meeting for anyone who has not heard the recording to have confidence they have the truth.”
Earlier Wednesday, a member of the committee, state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, said on Facebook that, since there was a chance the allegations could come before the panel, it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment. He did, though, offer general thoughts on how he thinks the process should play out.
“We should not rush to judgment but we should not drag our feet either,” Krause said. “We should not condemn anyone arbitrarily but also must not be scared to move forward if we find evidence of wrongdoing.”
On Wednesday evening, as news of the House committee investigation spread, more people were listening to Sullivan's recording and went public with details about it.
One House Republican on the alleged target list, Steve Allison of San Antonio, said in a statement he had listened to the audio — and that "any confidence and trust" in Bonnen and Burrows "has been irreparably damaged by their own inexplicable and arrogant actions." Allison seemed to stop short of calling for Bonnen's resignation, which at least two House Republicans have already done, though the lawmaker did say it's time for Bonnen and Burrows "to be held accountable for their actions."
Meanwhile, one former House member, state Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, said there was "unquestionably" a breach of protocol — but said a commission or committee would need to determine whether there "was a lapse of ethical or legal standards."
"As a member, the question is simple," Villalba told The Texas Tribune. "In my fight for my future, in a primary or otherwise, can I trust the Speaker to have my back? If, after hearing the tape, the answer is 'no,' then the speaker cannot survive."
Villalba, who lost in the 2018 GOP primary to a candidate that was heavily funded by Empower Texans, said he didn't think there was a quid pro quo offered during the June 12 meeting. Villalba also said that the speaker and Burrows had a list of members that they wouldn't be spending any time or resources protecting — but not necessarily targeting.
Meanwhile, Matt Mackowiak, chair of the Travis County GOP, told the Tribune that the recording "confirmed basically the representations that have been made from both Sullivan himself and several of the House members who have been quoted about it." The recording, Mackowiak said, made clear that the alleged target list "was a violation of Bonnen's own rule about not going against incumbents."
"Having now listened to it," Mackowiak said, "I don't see a compelling reason for the recording to not be released. From a transparency standpoint, it's going to be easier for everyone to be working with the same information."
Ross Ramsey contributed to this report.