Texas Democrats sue Speaker and non-profit leader over secret audio recording

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Bribery accusations, a secret recording and a Texas House investigation into a capitol meeting — now, the Texas Democratic Party has added a civil lawsuit on top, filed in Travis County District Court Thursday.

MORE: Bonnen apologizes, “I said terrible things”

It’s over a meeting between Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, Chairman of the Republican Caucus Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, and political non-profit leader, Michael Quinn Sullivan of Empower Texans.

On June 12, Bonnen, Burrows, and Sullivan met in the Texas Capitol. In the days after, Sullivan accused Bonnen of a quid-pro-quo in blog posts: Bonnen would give Empower Texans media passes for closer access to lawmakers on the floor of the House; in return, Sullivan’s group would spend money to oust 10 incumbent Republicans.

Bonnen denies the quid-pro-quo but apologized to House members in an email for “terrible things” he said — apparently, a reference to offensive statements said about women and LGBT House members, caught on Sullivan’s audio.

Multiple lawmakers and Republican political operatives confirm to KXAN they have heard the recording and say Sullivan’s account of the meeting is mostly accurate.

So far, no criminal charges have been filed. The Texas Rangers have not received a complaint. The Travis County District Attorney doesn’t have jurisdiction. The Brazoria County District Attorney — Bonnen’s home county — has not yet returned KXAN’s phone call.

Still, the Texas Democratic party made it a civil issue Thursday by filing a lawsuit, claiming Bonnen and Sullivan created a political committee without registering.

“Without disclosure. Without public information about who’s spending money on what. Is telling somebody else, is to use their dark money on a particular race, that is really questionable,” said Manny Garcia, the Executive Director of the Texas Democratic Party.

One of their goals is to preserve and publicize Sullivan’s recording.

“Texans deserve to know what the Speaker of the House said,” said Garcia, “Texans deserve to know what the Republican Caucus Chair said. They deserve to know what was happening in their Texas Capitol.”

Bonnen and Sullivan did not respond to KXAN to comment. But Sullivan tweeted in a response to the lawsuit that he is a whistleblower and is being victimized by a frivolous lawsuit by the Democrats and he looks forward to kicking “donkey butt” in court.

All three of the parties in the suit have motives.

The Speaker of the House wants to stay Speaker of the House and return with more allies in the capitol after the election. Sullivan wants those Republicans to be more conservative than they are. The Democrats want to up-end Republican power and take the Texas House themselves. The next steps will be decided in court.

MORE: Texas House to begin investigation into Bonnen

Did Bonnen commit a crime offering media credentials for campaign work against other House members? Longtime Houston criminal defense attorney Dick DeGuerin says no.

“People don’t want to see sausage being made because it tastes so good but it looks awful,” said DeGuerin. “There are political deals being done everywhere.”

In short, Bonnen doesn’t control media credentials. The Texas House Administration Committee does. Bonnen appoints that committee and has “influence” over it but doesn’t directly run it.

“That’s not bribery. That’s influence. And it’s not corrupt influence,” said DeGuerin.

Monday, the Texas House General Investigating Committee will hold a public hearing on the issue. KXAN reached out to the chair, Rep. Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas, to find out if the testimony will be open or in executive committee and has not heard back.

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