The House General Investigating Committee on Friday unanimously adopted a report from its legal advisers that said House Speaker Dennis Bonnen “likely violated” state law during a June meeting with a fellow member and a hardline conservative activist — though members didn't raise the idea of any possible action against Bonnen and said the investigation was closed.
“Today’s action concludes the committee’s investigation," said state Rep. Morgan Meyer, a Dallas Republican who chairs the committee, after members met behind closed doors for over an hour.
Meyer, who left the hearing room at the Texas Capitol without taking questions from reporters, said the full report from the three legal advisers retained in October by the committee would be “promptly transmitted” to House members. The committee did not immediately release the report to the public, though a copy was later obtained by The Texas Tribune.
The report concluded by saying the information produced "militates against criminal prosecution" against either Bonnen or state Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican considered one of the speaker's top lieutenants who was involved in the political fallout — a line that the speaker's office reiterated in a statement after the news.
“The committee has confirmed what we have known for months and the conclusion of their report speaks for itself," Cait Meisenheimer, a spokesperson for Bonnen, said in a statement.
Bonnen "likely violated" section 572.051(a) of the Texas Government Code, according to Meyer, who was reading from the report during the committee hearing — but advisers in the report said the law provided no"independent statutory consequences" for a state official who breaches it.
That section states that a state officer or employee should not “accept or solicit any gift, favor, or service that might reasonably tend to influence the officer or employee in the discharge of official duties, or that the officer or employee knows or should know is being offered with the intent to influence the officer's of employee's official conduct."
The section also states that such a person should not "intentionally or knowingly solicit, accept, or agree to accept any benefit for having exercised the officer's or employee's official powers."
Citing the report, Meyer also said that lawyers did not find supporting evidence that either Bonnen or Burrows broke other parts of state law. Meyer also noted that, if state Rep. Charlie Geren, a Fort Worth Republican who chairs the House Administration Committee, was correct about characterizing Empower Texans as a group that participates in lobbying activities, then giving Sullivan's organization credentials to the floor of the lower chamber would be a violation of House rules. Geren has previously denied Empower Texans those credentials.
The issue at hand dates back to late July, when hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan revealed he had secretly recorded a meeting with Bonnen and one of the speaker’s top lieutenants the month before at the Capitol. During the meeting, Bonnen offered Sullivan’s group media credentials to the lower chamber if its political action committee targeted 10 Republicans in the 2020 primaries. Bonnen also disparaged a number of House Democrats. And the speaker, as well as state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, made comments criticizing local government officials.
Sullivan’s secret recording set off a months-long political drama that ultimately ended in Bonnen announcing he would not seek reelection to the lower chamber — and, consequently, the speakership — after serving in the House for over 20 years. Amid the fallout, Burrows also stepped down as chair of the House GOP Caucus.
As the drama was playing out, the General Investigating Committee asked the Texas Rangers, the state’s top law enforcement agency, to investigate the matter — a request that the District Attorney Jeri Yenne from the speaker’s hometown also made soon after. In October, the Rangers concluded their investigation and submitted findings to Yenne, who announced Bonnen would not face criminal prosecution over his remarks during that June meeting.
After Yenne announced her decision, attention turned to the committee, which retained three legal advisers in October to help review the final report and advise them "on the most appropriate next steps.” The three legal advisers are Patricia Gray, Will Hartnett, both of whom are former members of the House, and Thomas Phillips, a former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Texas.
Democrats, for their part, said that Friday's news reiterated the need for the Texas Legislature to pass "substantial ethics reforms."
“It is unfortunate that Chairman Meyer scheduled today’s hearing to be part of a Friday news dump right before the holidays,” state Rep. Chris Turner, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, said in a statement. "If the committee has found that there is no consequence for transacting campaign business in the state capitol building or exchanging House media credentials for political favors, then we need to pass new laws. House Democrats will be ready to lead that effort when the Legislature convenes in 2021."
Further action is now up to the full 150-member House. The General Investigating Committee, according to House rules, can propose articles of impeachment — but did not do so during Friday's hearing. If House members wanted to act on the impeachment of Bonnen, they would have three vehicles to do so during the legislative interim, according to Section 665 of the state's government code, including the governor issuing a proclamation calling the House back into session.
A copy of the full Rangers report, which committee members have had since October, has not been made available to the public. An open records request to the Department of Public Safety was referred to the attorney general’s office, which has 45 days to determine whether the report should be turned over.