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The Bonnen-MQS saga makes the Times

Gotta love it when our little intramural squabbles go national.

Found on the Twitters

In Texas, they are calling it the case of “The Speaker and the Creeper.”

The political imbroglio started last month, when Michael Quinn Sullivan, a conservative pit bull who routinely antagonizes establishment politicians, accused the Republican House speaker, Dennis Bonnen, of offering his organization coveted House media credentials if it would work to defeat 10 incumbent House members from Mr. Bonnen’s own party.

Mr. Bonnen denied it, and the bombshell was initially greeted with some skepticism. Why would one of the state’s top politicians court a back-room deal — to undermine his own bench — with a man Texas Monthly recently described as “one of the biggest snakes in Texas politics”?

Except there was a tape.

Now Mr. Sullivan’s accusations are at the heart of the biggest scandal to hit Texas in years, one that is throwing the state’s Republican-led House of Representatives into turmoil and threatening to bring down the speaker.

[…]

The big question many are trying to answer now in the Texas capital is why Mr. Bonnen would have approached a group about which he has been openly dismissive.

After Mr. Sullivan criticized the latest “amazing LOSER #Texlege session” on Twitter, Mr. Bonnen brushed it off. “They speak only for themselves,” he told reporters. “They aren’t worth responding to. The reality of it is, if we passed every pro-life bill filed in the history of the state they would say we have not done enough. You will never please or appease those folks and I’m sure as hell not going to waste my time trying.”

That was at the end of May. Then came the meeting in the speaker’s office, in June. Mr. Sullivan said he was expecting a “tongue-lashing” for not supporting what he called the “lackluster results” of the legislative session, but instead, according to his account, he was asked by the House speaker to refrain from further criticizing the just-ended legislative session, leave a select group of Republicans alone and target 10 others.

In exchange, Mr. Sullivan said, he was offered press credentials for Texas Scorecard, the media arm of Empower Texans — though the House speaker has since pointed out he would not have the authority to grant such credentials.

Cal Jillson, a political-science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said Mr. Bonnen may have been seeking to soften the “enmity” between Republican factions and head off “incoming fire” from Empower Texans and affiliated groups in the future. “What Sullivan did was lay a trap for him,” Professor Jillson said.

In a July 29 press statement before Mr. Sullivan revealed that he had taped the conversations, Mr. Bonnen said that he had “one simple reason for taking the meeting — I saw it as an opportunity to protect my Republican colleagues and prevent us from having to waste millions of dollars defending ourselves against Empower Texans’ destructive primary attacks, as we have had to do in the past several cycles.”

Mr. Bonnen has said he supported the Texas Rangers investigation and has called on Mr. Sullivan to release the statement “in its entirety.”

Texas is no stranger to scandal, and a few old hands around the Capitol still remember the granddaddy of them all — the Sharpstown stock fraud scandal of 1970-72, which centered on quid pro quo stock purchases that resulted in charges against more than two dozen current and former state officials and led to a wholesale turnover in state government.

The latest investigation, which is becoming known as “Bonnenghazi” or “Bonnghazi,” will determine whether the current speaker hangs on to power or is forced to the sideline, further casting Republicans in disarray in a race for a new leader and perhaps even giving an opening to Democrats in their perennial efforts to regain control of the House for the first time in nearly two decades.

The question of what exactly Bonnen was doing talking to MQS in the first place remains the big mystery to me. None of it makes sense, including the list of alleged targets. I’m happy to continue to stoke the flames on this, but I think we would all be well advised to maintain some skepticism until such time as the full tapes come to light. The odds that MQS has been bullshitting us all this whole time via selective editing or other trickery remain non-trivial. Bonnen deserves a heaping pile of criticism for his actions, but that doesn’t mean we should believe anything MQS says.

Rep. Dustin Burrows steps down as House GOP Caucus Chair

Noted for the record.

Rep. Dustin Burrows

State Rep. Dustin Burrows of Lubbock has resigned as chair of the Texas House GOP Caucus, according to two people familiar with the matter. Burrows’ departure comes amid allegations that he and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen planned to politically target members from their own party in the 2020 primaries — and it marks the largest fallout yet since the accusations surfaced.

Burrows has served in the House since 2015. His resignation is expected to be announced to House Republicans sometime Friday. State Rep. Stephanie Klick of Fort Worth, who serves as vice chair of the caucus, will be elevated to chair.

Burrows has not yet publicly responded to the accusations made by Michael Quinn Sullivan, a hardline conservative activist who heads Empower Texans. Over the past few weeks, a number of House Republicans have privately expressed frustration that their caucus leader was largely remaining silent on the accusations made against him.

In a statement, Bonnen said that Burrows “was a strong leader for the caucus.” He added, “I respect his decision and I remain committed to strengthening our majority.”

Normally, this is super-deep Inside Baseball stuff, of interest to almost no one outside of the people who actually inhabit the Capitol. But these are not normal times, and Burrows is enmeshed in the current unpleasantness surrounding Speaker Dennis Bonnen and professional troglodyte Michael Quinn Sullivan. The fact that Burrows has maintained such strict radio silence is either a tribute to his loyalty to Bonnen or a measure of how deep the doo-doo is. Some day, perhaps we’ll find out which is the case.

Here come the Rangers

I don’t know where this is going to go, but it sure will be fun getting there.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

The Texas House General Investigating Committee voted Monday to request that the Texas Rangers look into allegations against House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and one of his top lieutenants in the lower chamber.

The committee vote, which was unanimous, followed roughly an hour of closed-door deliberations among the five House members who serve on the panel. At issue is whether Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, and state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, offered hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan media credentials for his organization in exchange for politically targeting a list of fellow GOP members in the 2020 primaries.

[…]

State Rep. Morgan Meyer, a Dallas Republican who chairs the House committee, said Monday that the Texas Ranger’s Public Integrity Unit “will conduct an investigation into the facts and circumstances surrounding” that meeting between Sullivan, Bonnen and Burrows. Meyer also requested that the Texas Rangers provide a copy of its final investigative report to the committee at the end of its investigation.

See here for the background. What might happen next could get complicated.

Aside from the quid pro quo aspect of the scandal, exchanging money in the Capitol or directing expenditures from a Capitol office has been a Class A misdemeanor ever since the Legislature reacted to a 1989 public outcry over the late chicken producer Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim handing out $10,000 checks to nine senators in the Senate chamber during a hearing on workers compensation reform.

Besides the issue of whether there was bribery involved, there are also potential election law crimes, including not disclosing the source of campaign contributions directed by Bonnen. The Texas Democratic Party filed a lawsuit against Sullivan on Thursday, alleging nine different potential criminal violations of the Texas Election Code, each a Class A misdemeanor. The lawsuit seeks to preserve evidence and damages of $100,000.

Given the potential for criminal wrongdoing, what happens next?

First, consider the dramatic changes that the Texas Legislature made to how public corruption cases are handled in Texas. Under a state law passed in 2015, the Travis County public integrity unit no longer has jurisdiction over elected officials at the Capitol. Potential criminal cases must be investigated first by the Texas Rangers. As of Thursday, the Rangers had not been asked to investigate the Bonnen/Sullivan controversy, nor had they initiated an investigation on their own, according to a Texas Department of Public Safety spokesperson.

If the Rangers do investigate and decide further action is warranted, the case is referred to the home county of the public official. That means any corruption charges against Bonnen would have to be brought by the Brazoria County DA. For Burrows, it would be the Lubbock County DA. Travis County would retain jurisdiction only over Sullivan. In cases of multiple jurisdiction, the Texas attorney general’s office can take charge.

Funnily enough, Attorney General Ken Paxton is under indictment on securities fraud charges in his home territory of Collin County. Paxton is accused of failing to register as a securities agent as part of his private law practice. He claims he is innocent and that the case is politically motivated. Paxton counts among his allies the funders of Empower Texans. (The plot always seems to thicken in this scandal.)

You know what this would mean: Special prosecutors would be needed. Nothing could possibly go wrong with that approach. It’s almost as if abolishing the prosecutorial power of the Public Integrity Unit was a bad idea with all kinds of potentially unwanted consequences. We are getting way ahead of ourselves here, so let’s reel it in a bit and say we can’t wait to see what happens next. Ross Ramsey has more.

TDP sues over Bonnen-MQS secret meeting

Here’s an interesting turn.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

The Texas Democratic Party is suing House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan, alleging they created an unregistered political action committee and violated other state election laws.

The lawsuit, filed in Travis County District Court on Thursday, stems from a June 12 meeting Sullivan had with Bonnen and Republican Caucus Chairman Dustin Burrows in Bonnen’s Capitol office. In the meeting, Sullivan has said, Bonnen and Burrows offered to give writers at his website, Texas Scorecard, House media credentials in the next legislative session in exchange for Sullivan’s political group targeting 10 Republican incumbents in next year’s primary elections. Sullivan said he rebuffed the offer.

But Democrats allege that meeting and any agreements reached in it show a coordinated effort “between political actors intended to influence the election or defeat of specific candidates” and amounts to an unregistered political committee as defined by state law.

The Democrats also allege that Bonnen and Burrows directed Sullivan to make political contributions or expenditures at their request under his political action committee, Empower Texans, which is illegal under Texas campaign finance law. They further claim that the alleged quid pro quo Bonnen offered Sullivan of public benefits in return for targeting elected officials amounts to a violation of state law.

The complaint says any contribution proposed at the meeting violated state law because it was made in the Capitol and during the Legislature’s fundraising moratorium.

[…]

As part of their lawsuit, the Democrats request that Sullivan produce the entire recording of the June meeting and any other recordings Sullivan has of Bonnen and Burrows. The Democrats also ask Sullivan to produce a list of all the people who have listened to the June recording and any documentation relevant to that meeting.

Ramos, a Richardson Democrat, is a plaintiff in the case because the Democratic Party says she “is one of the candidates mentioned in this recording as a target of the coordinated political efforts between the Speaker and Sullivan.” It is unclear whether she was named as a target, though multiple people who have heard the recording confirm Bonnen called her “awful.”

“Texans deserve to know exactly what happened on June 12, 2019 and they deserve accountability from their elected officials,” Ramos said in a prepared statement. “There needs to be accountability for any violations of ethics or the law that occurred during a meeting between a Republican activist and the Speaker of the House.”

You can see the TDP press release here, and a copy of the lawsuit here. We know about the tape. There’s no argument I can see for keeping it secret, though I’m sure MQS will come up with something. The Texas House General Investigating Committee investigation may also serve as a way to get the tape released, though I’d put more faith in the courts to serve as a fulcrum if it comes to that. One caveat about the House investigation:

But the actions of the committee – which can issue subpoenas, hire outside investigators or tap the state’s existing criminal investigative capability, such as the Texas Rangers – may complicate matters.

Under state law, a person testifying about incriminating behavior before the Legislature may not be prosecuted or indicted for any actions about which they truthfully testify, potentially giving Bonnen, Burrows and Sullivan immunity in any further legal actions if they testify before the committee.

If we didn’t have complications, we wouldn’t have anything. That said, MQS will not be able to delete the recording while the litigation is active, either, so we’ve got that going for us. Juanita and the Trib have more.

Time to investigate

So, hey, that conversation we now know Dennis Bonnen had with MQS? The subject of that conversation, which involved a quid-pro-quo access-for-political-activity proposal, may be a violation of house rules. So, the relevant committee will have a look-see to check that out.

Found on the Twitters

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.”

[…]

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.

See here for the background. It looks like everyone agrees that the actual recording should be released, which sure seems like the logical thing to do. Whether MQS and his ego will go along with it, that’s another question. I won’t be surprised if he comes up with some weird legal pretext to decline to cooperate, in which case we’ll likely wind up in court. But maybe I’m wrong, and he thinks it’s to his advantage to play along. We’ll start to get some answers on Monday. Trail Blazers has more.

Bonnen blinks

OMG.

Found on the Twitters

Speaker Dennis Bonnen on Tuesday apologized to his 149 colleagues for “terrible things” he said about some of them, just hours after more details emerged about slurs against fellow House members uttered by him and his chief GOP sidekick Rep. Dustin Burrows.

“It was a mistake,” Bonnen wrote of his and Burrows’ June meeting with longtime conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan.

“I said terrible things that are embarrassing to the members, to the House, and to me personally,” Bonnen said in an email obtained by The Dallas Morning News. “You know me well enough to know I say things with no filter.”

Bonnen, whose hold on power has been rocked by Sullivan’s disclosure of the June meeting in Bonnen’s Capitol office, stopped short of admitting he has lied. Bonnen said he plans to meet individually in coming days and weeks with House members.

“I ask for your forgiveness, and I hope to rebuild your trust,” he wrote.

[…]

Bonnen acted Tuesday afternoon, more than five hours after Direct Action Texas, a grassroots conservative group critical of state GOP leaders, provided new and damning details of Bonnen and Burrows’ alleged targeting of incumbent House Republicans in a blog post.

On the Fort Worth-based group’s website, [Daniel] Greer, a former colleague of Sullivan’s, quoted Bonnen as labeling certain Democratic colleagues as “awful” and “vile,” while he said Burrows, the House GOP caucus’ chairman, derided fellow Republican Rep. Keith Bell of Forney as a “dumb freshman.”

Richardson Democratic freshman Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos “is called awful, [Houston Democratic freshman] Rep Jon Rosenthal makes the Speaker’s skin crawl … and [Carrollton Democratic freshman] Rep. Michelle Beckley is vile,” according to Greer’s account of a June 12 meeting between the two GOP House leaders and Sullivan. Sullivan secretly made the audio recording, and Greer wrote that he listened to it Sunday.

While The News could not independently confirm the account, Nacogdoches GOP Rep. Travis Clardy, who was named among the list of 10 targets and has listened to the recording, told the newspaper that the new account was mostly in line with what he’d heard.

As some House members, including Bonnen, were attending a national legislative conference in Nashville, Tenn., many were said to be discussing the Sullivan affair.

As texts and phone calls about the Greer post proliferated, Bonnen issued the apology.

See here for the previous update, and here for a copy of the Bonnen letter. There’s a lot here, so I’m going to summarize:

– My initial, hot-take reaction is that I don’t see any way forward for Dennis Bonnen to remain as Speaker. I’m not certain he can stay in the House. He’s going to have to smooth an awful lot of ruffled feathers, that’s for sure.

– But then, if Rep. Jon Rosenthal is typical – and according to Glenn Smith, he may be more typical than I’d have thought – maybe he will survive. Though I still don’t see how he can be Speaker again. Maybe that’s just me.

– By all accounts, Dennis Bonnen is a smart guy. And yet, this was galactically stupid of him in every regard. I have no idea what he hoped to gain, what he had against the members in question, why he let his guard down around a known enemy like MQS, all of it. Maybe someday he’ll spill his guts to a reporter to explain himself, but until then, boy howdy was this dumb.

– At least now we understand why Dustin Burrows has been hiding these past few days. I wouldn’t want to explain my role in this clusterfudge, either.

– As a Democrat, I almost can’t believe our luck. I do wish all of this were coming out later in the cycle, but this is going to leave a mark. I generally downplay the long-term effect of hard-fought primaries. There’s plenty of time to regroup and focus on the common goals. Here, I don’t think forgive and forget are in the cards. MQS being MQS, he’s sure not going to let people forget.

– Even after all this, it still feels like there’s another shoe to drop. At this point, all those calls to release the full tape may now work in MQS’ favor. I’m sure he will continue playing it for more people, and we’ll keep getting reactions from them. Who knows how long this will drag out?

So yeah, let’s keep that popcorn coming. The Trib has more.

UPDATE: This guy, clearly a Republican, is tracking statements of House members accepting Bonnen’s apology.

It’s all about the tape

You want to hear the recording of that conversation between Speaker Dennis Bonnen and MQS in which Bonnen supposedly trashed a bunch of Republican legislators? You can’t hear it unless MQS wants you to.

Found on the Twitters

For the past week, Texas Republicans, Democrats and even Speaker Dennis Bonnen have called for the full release of audio that allegedly captures him attacking members of his party and making crude remarks about House colleagues.

But now some of those who listened to the audio are calling for the full recordings to be withheld from the public.

The fear? Mutually assured destruction.

“Any representative calling for this to be released in its unredacted, unedited form hasn’t heard it, because if you had heard it you wouldn’t want it to be released,” said Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, who listened to the recordings last week.

Toth is among at least a half dozen people who say they’ve listened to the full audio of a conversation captured by conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan. He has roiled the state Capitol with accusations that Bonnen and House GOP Caucus chairman Dustin Burrows asked Sullivan to target a list of 10 Republican legislators ahead of next March’s primary.

Six people who say they listened to the audio have confirmed Sullivan’s side of the story, despite Bonnen saying publicly that Sullivan is lying. Sullivan last week began allowing Republican lawmakers, party leaders and conservative activists listen to the audio in the presence of his lawyer.

[…]

The list of supposed Republican targets includes Reps. Tan Parker of Flower Mound, Steve Allison of San Antonio, Trent Ashby of Lufkin, Ernest Bailes of Shepherd, Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, Drew Darby of San Angelo, Kyle Kacal and John Raney of College Station, Stan Lambert of Abilene, and Phil Stephenson of Wharton.

From that list, Parker and Clardy have told news outlets they have listened to the recording, but it’s unclear how many others have listened to it. Parker declined further comment to the insider newsletter Quorum Report. Clardy called the comments on the recording “repugnant” and said it was “the most disappointing thing I’ve ever seen.”

Sullivan has denied Democrats a chance to listen to the audio, even those who he says were mentioned by name. He has also denied requests from news outlets to hear the recording.

See here for the previous update. Democrats of course want the full recording to be released, as do some Republicans, but MQS is gonna do what MQS is gonna do, and as long as only a select few get to hear it, it keeps his name squarely in the news. What more could an egotist like him want? All I know is I haven’t run out of popcorn yet.

Your daily Bonnen-MQS update

I’m just sittin’ here watching the wheels go round and round…

Found on the Twitters

After a week of denying that he asked an arch-conservative to target 10 fellow Republicans in the next primary election, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen challenged Empower Texans CEO Michael Quinn Sullivan to release a secretly-recorded audio of their meeting.

But three House members who have reportedly listened to the recording said the speaker is not being truthful about the alleged list of GOP targets, rocking the Texas Republican party as it prepares for its most challenging election cycle in decades.

“It’s pretty shocking. I’ll be honest with you. It is,” said Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford. “There’s just frankly vomiting of the mouth, if you will, by these individuals and you can’t help but just kinda cringe by some of the stuff I heard … It’s beneath the office, for sure.”

Stickland, a darling of Empower Texans who is not running for re-election, said Bonnen offered media credentials to Sullivan during their June 12 conversation. Stickland said he heard on the audio that Bonnen then sweetened the deal by offering to deny media credentials to political reporter Scott Braddock of the Quorum Report. The credentials give journalists access to the floor of the Texas House when the Legislature is in session, and provide better access to lawmakers for interviews and follow-up questions.

[…]

Two other Republican lawmakers who have heard the audio have offered fewer details about what they heard, although Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, confirmed the audio reveals that Burrows gave Sullivan the names of members who could be challenged in their primary elections without repercussion.

Clardy, who is on the list, said there are things on the recording that will be hurtful to some members, but each representative will have to determine for themselves “what it means and how to take it and whether they will be able to move past it.”

For his part, Clardy said he has already moved past it and wants to talk to Bonnen and Burrows, who he has yet to speak with to since news of the meeting broke last week.

See here, here, and here for the background. Let’s hear from Scott Braddock about this:

Here’s Ross Ramsey:

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen isn’t cooked, yet — but the water is boiling.

The compact between a speaker and the members of the Texas House who elect him goes like this: Protect the members from the outside world (and from fratricidal colleagues), and in return, you get the title, the fancy corner office, the apartment in the state Capitol, and the gavel and the dais when the Legislature is in session.

Protection for power. It’s not a complicated transaction.

And the threat to that compact is why Bonnen is facing a crisis seven months after winning the job. Accused of selling out 10 of his fellow Republicans to a political operative, he’s now pitting his word with that activist threatening to make public a recording of their conversation.

[…]

As more members hear the recording — assuming they’re hearing a clean and complete rendition — they’ll compare that to what Bonnen has been telling them for the last week. If the stories don’t match, the speaker — this is the gentlest way of putting it — will have to explain the discrepancies.

In a trust-based relationship between a leader and the followers who elected him, that’s perilous.

A speaker who doesn’t have the trust of his own members isn’t in a secure spot. And one caught working directly against those members is cooked.

Plus two more Trib stories. Never let it be said that MQS doesn’t know how to get his name in the papers.

It is certainly possible that Bonnen, normally a pretty astute fellow, was dumb enough to talk to MQS and say these things he supposedly said. I don’t know why he’d do that, I don’t see what was in it for him, but maybe he was just saying the quiet parts out loud and forgot that he was dealing with a fundamentally dishonest broker. That’s the real key here, that no one with any integrity of their own should ever believe a word MQS says. If he’s got the goods on Bonnen, then put that recording out on the Internet for all of us to hear. I don’t care one way or the other what happens to Bonnen, but to me this is analogous to all of those “sting” tapes that grifters like James O’Keefe have put out over the years, supposedly showing people they don’t like saying or doing horrible things. Except that at a closer look, the whole thing falls apart, as the tape in question was heavily and dishonestly edited to make the sting subject look bad. I wouldn’t put that past MQS at all, but again, the answer here is simple. He says he’s got the goods. Let the rest of us hear it for ourselves. If MQS himself doesn’t also want that, we should wonder why.

I just can’t quit the Bonnen-MQS squabble

How much popcorn is too much? Asking for a friend.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

A hardline conservative activist who has accused Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, of offering his group long-denied media access to the lower chamber in exchange for politically targeting 10 GOP lawmakers says he has a recording of their conversation — and suggested he may soon release it to the public. Bonnen has denied Sullivan’s characterization of the June 12 meeting.

“Speaker Bonnen and Rep. [Dustin] Burrows must recant their false claims. All of them. Immediately,” Michael Quinn Sullivan wrote Wednesday. “If they do not, I believe I will be obligated to release the recording—in whole or in part, I haven’t decided yet—so as to set straight the record they have tried to contort.”

Sullivan, CEO of Empower Texans, made the statement on his group’s Texas Scorecard website. Sullivan last week accused Bonnen and Burrows of offering Sullivan’s organization House media credentials if the well-funded political action committee he heads targeted 10 Republican members in the 2020 primaries. According to Sullivan, Bonnen left the room before Burrows handed over a list of the 10 members. Burrows, a Lubbock Republican, chairs the House GOP caucus.

In an email to House Republicans the day after those allegations surfaced, Bonnen disputed Sullivan’s version of events. And in a statement released Monday, Bonnen said that “at no point in our conversation was Sullivan provided with a list of target Members.” Burrows has remained silent publicly since Sullivan first made his allegations.

See here and here for the background. Everyone knows that MQS is a lying liar, but folks from Ross Ramsey to Christopher Hooks to Erica Greider are baffled by Bonnen’s weak denials and Burrows’ disappearing act. Hooks notes the claim of a recording and calls it “a potentially mortal threat to Bonnen’s speakership”. I only wish this were all happening about 14 months from now.

UPDATE: Oh, yeah.

“Mr. Sullivan, release your recording. Release it in its entirety,” the speaker said in a statement late Wednesday.

Keep at it, boys.

UPDATE: More, more, more.

Two members of the Texas House who listened Wednesday night to a recording of a meeting that has shaken up the Legislature refuted House Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s denials that he offered a list of 10 GOP representatives for a hardline conservative group to politically target.

“What I derived from the audio tape — it’s very clear — is that Speaker Bonnen was not truthful about a list not being provided,” state Rep. Steve Toth, a Republican from The Woodlands, told The Texas Tribune after he listened to a recording of Michael Quinn Sullivan, CEO of Empower Texans, visiting Bonnen’s office June 12.

State Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, who is said to be on the alleged list, later told The Dallas Morning News that what he heard is “consistent with” what Sullivan has alleged.

Please never stop feuding over this.

Keep that popcorn coming

Oh, yeah.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

Four days after a hardline conservative activist accused him and GOP caucus chairman Dustin Burrows of plotting to target 10 fellow Republicans in primary elections, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen forcefully denied the allegations Monday afternoon.

“Let me be clear. At no point in our conversation was [Michael Quinn] Sullivan provided with a list of target Members,” Bonnen said in a prepared statement. “I had one simple reason for taking the meeting — I saw it as an opportunity to protect my Republican colleagues and prevent us from having to waste millions of dollars defending ourselves against Empower Texans’ destructive primary attacks, as we have had to do the past several cycles.”

Bonnen also defended Burrows, the GOP caucus chairman and one of Bonnen’s top allies, by saying he asked him not to comment on the matter.

“I asked Chairman Burrows to be present as a witness to our conversation. I also asked him not to comment on this matter because this was an attack by Sullivan on me as the Speaker, and I wanted the opportunity to communicate with Members directly in an email that I sent on Friday evening,” Bonnen said. “I have apologized to Chairman Burrows for everything he has gone through — at no fault of his own — as a result of simply doing what I asked him to do.”

Bonnen’s denial and his defense of Burrows come as at least one member on the alleged target list was demanding answers.

Rep. Ernest Bailes told The Dallas Morning News on Monday morning that he was drafting a letter to seek answers from Burrows.

“I am making a formal request now to get that response from Burrows,” Bailes had told The News. Bailes, R-Shepherd, said the caucus sent members an email Monday morning asking for information about the representatives’ district events, while “completely ignoring” the allegations facing its chairman.

Burrows was accused of delivering the alleged list of 10 GOP targets. Bailes said the radio silence from Burrows was unacceptable: “That’s why he serves in that capacity.”

He did not immediately respond to a request for comment following Bonnen’s denial. Burrows did not respond to a request for comment Monday. He has not addressed the matter publicly since the allegation was made Thursday.

See here for the background. I don’t expect this squabble to last very long, certainly not all the way through next November. But I sure am going to enjoy it while it lasts. The Trib has more.

The Bonnen-MQS kerfuffle

As they say, pass the popcorn.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

Less than three weeks after state lawmakers wrapped up their 2019 legislative session, an unusual meeting convened with unlikely conferees from opposite ends of the Texas Capitol power structure.

On one side: Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and top ally Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, both fresh off a first session that had left lawmakers trumpeting the no-nonsense, landmark school finance and property tax legislation set to soon become law.

On the other: Michael Quinn Sullivan, a hardline conservative activist, whose Empower Texans organization had just unsuccessfully fought a number of the big measures that passed, prompting political observers to wonder whether the group’s influence within the Republican Party had hit a new low.

What happened in that June 12 meeting has become a major point of dispute, and the uncertainty surrounding it has roiled a GOP-controlled House heading into one of the most important election cycles in recent history.

On Thursday, Sullivan went public with an online post detailing his version of the story: Burrows gave Sullivan a list of 10 fellow House GOP members to target during the 2020 primary elections. In return, Texas Scorecard, an Empower Texans operation that bills itself as a news site, would receive long-denied House media credentials when the Legislature reconvenes in 2021. Sullivan linked to a letter that Bonnen sent on June 27 claiming that Sullivan, who had sent his own letter earlier that month to reject the offer, had “a misimpression of our meeting” and that no such deal had ever been on the table.

And on Friday evening, Bonnen, though he did not explicitly mention Sullivan’s allegation about the 10-member list, forcefully denied Sullivan’s version of the story — and recounted his version of how that meeting played out in an email sent to House Republicans that was obtained by The Texas Tribune.

According to Bonnen, the two ran into one another at a Houston airport after the legislative session ended. “I approached him and asked him what his problem was with the House.” Bonnen wrote. “It was a short and curt exchange, and he asked me at that time if he could meet with me. I said ‘sure.'”

You can see Bonnen’s letter to House members here, and Ross Ramsey’s recap of the situation here. The main lesson to take away from this is, of course, that Sullivan is a toxic force that should be avoided at all costs. In the meantime, Republicans are welcome to fight among themselves all they want. Now where’s that popcorn?

This was a busy week for dumb lawsuits

Exhibit A:

“Objection Overruled”, by Charles Bragg

Houston mayoral challenger Tony Buzbee followed through his pledge to sue Mayor Sylvester Turner Wednesday, claiming that donated billboards for the city’s AlertHouston! campaign violate campaign finance laws because they feature a photo of Turner.

The lawsuit, filed in the 281st state district court, names Turner and Clear Channel Outdoor Inc., the company that donated the 27 billboards, as defendants.

Buzbee’s petition claims Clear Channel is “blatantly supporting” Turner in the November mayoral race “by plastering his smiling face across this city while promoting him as a civic-minded, safety conscious leader.”

The billboards promote AlertHouston!, a system that sends alerts to Houston residents during emergency situations.

I’m not going to waste our time on the details here. Let’s refer to this earlier story for the reasons why this is dumb.

Buck Wood, an Austin-based campaign finance lawyer, equated Buzbee’s allegations to a hypothetical real estate agent who, after announcing a run for public office, would then have to take down any advertisements for their private business.

“I have never seen anything like that,” he said.

Proving the billboards are illegal, Wood said, would require Buzbee to show that the company and Turner struck a deal explicitly aimed at aiding the mayor’s re-election.

“You’d have to have good, strong evidence that they put up these pictures just for the purpose of helping elect him,” Wood said. “…You’d have to prove a conspiracy, and that’s basically impossible to do in this situation.”

Each year around hurricane season, former Harris County Judge Ed Emmett would appear on billboards, in some years directing people to the county’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management website. Emmett said he used campaign funds to pay for the billboards during election years.

I mean, I know Tony Buzbee is supposed to be a super duper lawyer and all, but maybe he might have asked another lawyer about this first? Just a thought.

Exhibit B:

Months after being denied media credentials for the Texas House, the conservative organization Texas Scorecard — a product of Empower Texans, a Tea Party-aligned political advocacy group with one of the state’s best-funded political action committees — has filed a First Amendment lawsuit arguing that its rejection from the lower chamber constitutes “unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.”

Before the legislative session kicked off in January, two employees of Texas Scorecard, Brandon Waltens and Destin Sensky, applied for media credentials in both chambers of the Legislature. In the Senate, their credentials were granted; in the House, they were denied. The two chambers follow similar rules about who is allowed special journalistic access to the floor, and both prohibit lobbyists. But the chambers’ political atmospheres are different.

House Administration Chair Charlie Geren, a Fort Worth Republican who has sparred with Empower Texans and its PAC in the past, told the group in a January rejection letter that it was ineligible for media credentials because “the organization you are employed by, Texas Scorecard, has a close association with a general-purpose political committee (GPAC) and that the organization’s website prominently displays advocacy on policy matters before the legislature.” As evidence of the group’s affiliation with the PAC, Geren cited the organizations’ shared address — but by the time Geren’s letter was issued, the lawsuit claims, they no longer shared that address.

Empower Texans PAC has backed primary opponents to Geren and has given Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the Texas Senate, more than $850,000 in the last five years.

Now, Empower Texans is very likely to get a friendly hearing from the State Supreme Court, so at least from a strategic perspective, this isn’t a dumb lawsuit. It’s very likely to be a successful lawsuit. But come on. If these Empower Texans flunkies count as “journalists”, then that word has no meaning. All of us are made a little more dumb by the existence of this lawsuit.

This week on “As Collin County Turns”

I swear, the Ken Paxton case is a giant vortex of political suck, absorbing everything in its wake.

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

The Collin County district judge who oversaw the grand jury indictment of state Attorney General Ken Paxton is now facing a complaint before the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Chris Oldner – whose comments about the politically charged case have drawn attention – was accused in a filing dated last week of judicial misconduct for “disparaging” Paxton, failing to recuse himself sooner, and potentially prejudicing the proceedings.

The campaign for Oldner, a Republican who is now running for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, said the “complaint is completely without merit.”

“It’s just another just another example of how dark-money special interest groups seek to bully and intimidate ethical, conservative judges who strictly follow the law,” the campaign said. “It has to be humiliating that they had to resort to a young, low-level political operative to do their bidding.”

The grievance was filed by Aaron Harris, a North Richland Hills politico who’s worked on anti-bond efforts and other Tarrant County campaigns. Empower Texans, a conservative group that supports Paxton, first posted Harris’ complaint on Wednesday.

Harris laughed off the Oldner campaign’s response, adding that “if I’m the boogieman, that’s great.”

“It’s very telling that he doesn’t address the merits of the complaint,” he said. “And I have no idea where he gets ‘dark money’ or anything like that. … I’m not sure how a concerned citizen is a special interest group.”

[…]

They asked Tarrant County District Judge George Gallagher, who’s now overseeing the case, to quash the indictments over issues with how Oldner selected the grand jury. They also accused Oldner of leaking information about the indictment to his wife.

Oldner has said previously that he didn’t do anything wrong. And while Gallagher did not address the claims against Oldner, he denied a motion last month which raised Oldner’s actions as a reson to throw out the indictments.

Harris’ complaint echoes the concerns outlined by Paxton’s legal team. He focused on an interview that Oldner gave to WFAA-TV (Channel 8) in which the judge accused Paxton’s defense team of having “reached a desperate place.”

“As citizens, we have to hold our elected officials – judges or not – accountable,” Harris said. “And Judge Oldner’s behavior in this case is troublesome.”

See here for the background. You have to admire Aaron Harris’ ability to keep a straight face while hilariously casting himself as just plain ol’ folk doing the good work of keeping an eye on government. I mean, I could hear him twirling his mustache from here. I have no idea whether Oldner – who I remind you is a candidate for Court of Criminal Appeals in the GOP primary – crossed any lines in that WFAA interview or not. The State Commission on Judicial Conduct will sort that out in a few months. But man, this whole Paxton case is a cancer. Who else will wind up going down with his ship?

On succeeding, and defending, Ken Paxton

Ross Ramsay:

Best mugshot ever

While Ken Paxton fights to avoid convictions and jail time on indictments alleging securities violations — and to keep his job as Texas attorney general — a muted and unofficial conversation about who will succeed him is already underway.

[…]

That considerable legal predicament opens the conversation about whether Paxton can survive politically. Any felony conviction, whether it involves prison or not, would cost him his law license and probably whatever remains of his term. And that could set up an appointment of his successor by Gov. Greg Abbott — his predecessor as attorney general.

That leads to this: There is a political fluster underway that most people know nothing about.

Names of possible Paxton successors are floating around in Republican circles: Supreme Court Justices Don Willett and Eva Guzman; former Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson; current and former first assistants to the AG Chip Roy and Daniel Hodge; [Dan] Branch and [Barry] Smitherman, the two also-rans in last year’s Republican primary. It goes on, picking up Education Commissioner Michael Williams and state Rep. Jason Villalba of Dallas.

The people in the preceding paragraph have a few things in common. They are Republicans. They are lawyers. They are not openly campaigning for Paxton’s job. Some support Paxton and hope he emerges without a mark. And they make up a pretty good list of viable candidates for state office, whether it turns out to be this one or something in the future. They’re from different parts of the GOP, and the infighting, should an opening occur, could be fierce.

I hope Paxton digs his heels in deep and hangs on to run for re-election even if he’s been convicted. What does he care what a bunch of insiders and establishment figures think about his “effectiveness” or “ability to govern?” They’re not the ones who elected him in the first place, and they’re not the ones who are steadfastly supporting him against all comers and all evidence. Scott Braddock explains.

Employees of Tim Dunn’s Empower Texans, a self-proclaimed conservative group, have tried to make the case that Texas House Speaker Joe Straus is somehow to blame for the legal problems Paxton now faces.

As Quorum Report publisher Harvey Kronberg has pointed out, this alleged swindling of investors amounts to the same kind of shenanigans that helped give rise to the Tea Party in the first place back in 2008 following the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent Wall Street bailouts.

What’s gotten less attention is the company at the heart of the Paxton indictment, Servergy, received government economic incentives that are strongly opposed by Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, and others who claim to be as conservative as they come.

Sen. Ted Cruz – one of Paxton’s biggest supporters and the man who more than anyone put his political capital behind him in the GOP primary runoff against Rep. Dan Branch – regularly rails against government interference in the marketplace.

In his crusade against the Export-Import Bank, a top priority of many Texas employers, Cruz has called the Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a liar and has repeatedly used the word “cartel” to describe lobbyists who represent job creators in his home state and elsewhere.

At the time Paxton was rounding up investors for Servergy, allegedly without disclosing his financial interest in the firm, the company was getting government incentives to move to his hometown. Among the details of Paxton’s situation is the fact that Servergy received rental assistance from the City of McKinney so that it could relocate to North Texas from California.

[…]

Many of those same folks in the business community are understandably unaware of the way in which scorecards created and promoted by Empower Texans are reverse-engineered with the goal of aiding GOP politicians who have been adversarial toward Speaker Straus. Sen. Burton and AG Paxton have been beneficiaries of those tactics.

Paxton was also the recipient of at least $1.4 million in Empower Texans political money in the form of a $1 million loan and $400,000 cash as he ran for the Republican nomination.

As far as we know, Paxton is the only one of their allies who possibly gained from government economic incentives that went to a company from which he stood to profit financially.

If consistency or conservatism were the priorities of Dunn, his spokesman Michael Quinn Sullivan, and Sen. Burton they would likely be among the loudest critics of Servergy’s rental assistance.

But the name of the game for this particular cartel is control, not consistency.

Indeed, and that’s why I think any talk of who might succeed Ken Paxton is premature. Paxton knows where his bread is buttered. Until that support dries up, or until the voters actually do boot him out, I don’t believe he’s going anywhere.

The odds never favor ethics reforms

Better to keep your hopes down and not suffer too much disappointment.

BagOfMoney

Gov. Greg Abbott pledged on the campaign trail to lead the charge to improve the state’s ethics laws, and now lawmakers and advocates pushing for reform are looking to the newly elected governor to help breathe life into proposals at the Legislature.

Lawmakers of both parties at the state Capitol talk a big game when it comes to strengthening laws aimed at rooting out corruption or providing more transparency to the public. That mostly has amounted to lip service, advocates of open government say, as substantive ethics reform has continually been curbed.

This session, efforts again will include attempts to require disclosure of contracts elected officials and their families have with the public sector, to make lawmakers’ personal financial statements available online, and to slow down the revolving door of lawmakers leaving office and immediately becoming lobbyists. All have failed previously.

There also are plans to propose legislation addressing secret campaign donors.

And a package of ethics measures Abbott laid out on the campaign trail, from putting more teeth into conflicts-of-interest statutes to beefing up campaign finance reporting requirements, are expected to get serious attention this session.

“Gov. Abbott made this a large part of his campaign for a good reason,” said state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, a second-term Republican from Southlake. “People are afraid that somehow we’re working on things that could enrich other politicians.”

[…]

Tom “Smitty” Smith of watchdog group Public Citizen Texas said he remains cynical about what actually will come to fruition, noting Abbott’s plan did not include any mention of so-called “dark money” – political contributions in which the donor is not disclosed.

“Abbott has clearly signaled he wants to do some sort of ethics reform,” Smith said. “It’s more of a matter of, what is a reform?”

Bet the under, that’s my advice. It’s not even all on Abbott, to be honest, but more about the MQS mafia. Of course, they’re big backers of Abbott, who I expect will be honest enough to stay bought. Even if some form of ethics reform gets through, kneecapping the Public Integrity Unit and trimming funds for the Texas Ethics Commission will ensure that any new rules will be largely unenforceable anyway. So stay pessimistic, but hope for the best.

Expect “dark money” to stay dark

Nice recommendations, but they’re not going anywhere.

BagOfMoney

Labeling so-called dark money spending a corrupting force in the democratic process, the House Committee on State Affairs issued a set of recommendations after Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, directed the panel a year ago to dive into the topic during the interim.

Strauss and his lieutenants have been frequent targets of the state’s highest-spending politically active 501(c)(4), Empower Texas.

Nonprofits established under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(4) currently are allowed to spend money to influence elections but do not have to reveal who is funding the efforts. The groups have argued their donor lists are constitutionally protected.

Campaign cash from politically active nonprofits that do not disclose donors represents just a fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars flowing into Texas elections.

But lawmakers on the House panel said in the report that “if we fail to act, we leave the opportunity for a growing number of entities to anonymously manipulate and control our elections, which undermines the democratic process.”

“The ability to give and spend anonymously through highly sophisticated means, often by obtaining 501(c)(4) status, corrupts the free democratic process for everyone,” the report said. “It is fundamentally vital that the legislature increase the transparency of our campaign finance system and protect the integrity of our elections, while providing for laws that meet constitutional scrutiny.”

[…]

Among the recommendations included in the report are a call for the Legislature to pass a bill to “ensure all political entities spending substantial funds to influence elections” be required to disclose donors like a traditional political action committee.

The panel also recommended lawmakers require 501(c)(4)s to provide a check box for donors to opt out of having their money used for politicking, a model that’s currently used in Utah, which was rocked by a dark money scandal in 2013.

You may recall that a bill like this passed out of the Lege last time, where it was met by Rick Perry’s veto pen. That’s the one where Dan Patrick demanded a re-vote because he didn’t realize what he had voted for the first time. He won’t make that mistake again. Expect this one to get deep-sixed in the Senate. Patrick and his minions like their money dark.

Empower Texans could have some tax problems

Schadenfreude alert:

BagOfMoney

Empower Texans, an organization at the center of the state’s far-right conservative movement, reported no political expenses on its 2012 tax returns to the Internal Revenue Service, despite showing $350,000 in campaign expenditures to state authorities, documents show.

The group, which claims to support fiscal responsibility and greater transparency in government, is best known for funding challengers going after Republicans it believes are too moderate, such as House Speaker Rep. Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican.

“That is a very serious discrepancy, because it tends to suggest – it’s not, obviously, definitive – but it tends to suggest that the (tax return) was completed in a way that is knowingly incorrect,” said Marcus Owens, who was the director of the division of the IRS that oversees tax-exempt organizations from 1990 through 2000. “Absent some cogent and persuasive explanation of those two, that strikes me as potentially a criminal problem and certainly a civil problem.”

Another attorney well-versed in the IRS’ rules and procedures for nonprofits was equally critical.

“To the degree they are filing reports with the state ethics commission showing political spending, and they’re not showing them on their (tax returns), I find that questionable,” said John Pomeranz, a Washington D.C.-based attorney, who specializes in the law governing lobbying and political activity by nonprofits. “I’m trying to think of a way that could be justified, but I don’t really think it can be.”

[…]

Empower Texans’ nonprofit status makes its tax returns public record. Information from the tax returns reviewed from 2008 until 2012 also raises questions about whether the group has used an affiliated nonprofit, the Empower Texans Foundation, to improperly subsidize its political activity.

According to those records, Sullivan’s salary at Empower Texans fell greatly after the Empower Texans Foundation was created. However, the pay he received from the foundation more than made up the difference. In 2009, the year before the foundation was established, Sullivan made $99,600 in 2009, working 60 hours a week, serving as the president of Empower Texans.

However, in 2011, he made only $38,842 (about $19 an hour), as Empower Texans’ president. But he made $81,600 (roughly $78 an hour) serving as a director on the foundation’s board, tax returns show.

The pattern repeated itself in 2012: Sullivan, again listed as Empower Texans’ president, made $45,633 there, while earning another $81,600 from the foundation.

“That definitely suggests the (foundation) is subsidizing (Empower Texans), and the IRS doesn’t like that,” Pomeranz said.

While the IRS allows affiliated nonprofits to share staff and other costs, it requires that each organization carry its own weight, Owens said. He added that failure to do that could endanger the foundation’s tax-exempt status.

The tax returns, known as 990s, have come into the spotlight as the Ethics Commission considers adopting rules that would require nonprofits, like Empower Texans, to report their donors if at least 25 percent of their expenditures are “politically motivated.”

I know, it’s hard to believe that anyone as honest and forthright as Michael Quinn Sullivan could be playing fast and loose with the rules. Clearly, we need a nice, long, thorough investigation to get to the bottom of this.

Empower Texans to spread its virus to Houston

Try not to get infected.

Empower Texans said Sunday it will open a political outpost in Houston, a signal that the conservative political action committee may emerge as a player in upcoming municipal elections.

[…]

On Friday, Empower’s fiscal policy analyst Christopher Paxton criticized Houston’s elected officials for complaining about having to rein in government spending.

“Too many Houston politicians have decided the real problem is the limit on government growth, not endlessly growing government,” Paxton said in a blog post. “It is high time that Houstonians held their elected officials accountable and demand that the council address major fiscal challenges without raising taxes or complaints.”

That “high time” may come next year, when Houston voters will elect a new mayor and 16 city council members. Several Republicans are expected to run for the city’s top job – meaning Empower’s endorsement could help a candidate advance to the runoff in a crowded field.

Empower Texans is the astroturf group headed by Michael Quinn Sullivan, the self-appointed overlord of the state Republican Party. The one benefit to this is that Empower will provide an easy way to identify anyone that you should be sure to avoid like the plague in any election. Any candidate they endorse is just about by definition someone you should not vote for. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for their endorsements next year. Campos has more.