A panel of Texas lawmakers on Monday asked state police to investigate allegations that Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen offered media credentials for the chamber to a hardline conservative activist in exchange for campaigning against a group of GOP incumbents in the 2020 primary.
The House General Investigating Committee met behind closed doors for about an hour before unanimously voting to ask the Texas Rangers' Public Integrity Unit to investigate and report its findings. That unit is responsible for looking into allegations of corruption by public officials.
The claim against Bonnen from conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan threatens to fracture Texas Republicans as the party heads into 2020 elections trying to hold a 16-seat majority in the House. Texas lawmakers will redraw voting maps in 2021 and political control of the House and Senate will be critical.
Any investigation "should follow the facts and the evidence without regard to political considerations," said Rep. Morgan Meyer, the committee chairman and a Dallas Republican. The House committee has three Republicans and two Democrats.
"While I am disappointed Speaker Dennis Bonnen and State Rep. Dustin Burrows chose the course they did to deceive the public about our June 12 meeting, I'm glad the Texas House General Investigating Committee appears to be searching for the truth," Sullivan said in a statement.
Bonnen's office said the speaker "fully supports" the committee's decision.
The scandal erupted last month when Sullivan wrote on his website about his June 12 meeting with Bonnen in Austin. Sullivan is head of Empower Texans, a lobbying group that often criticizes Republicans it feels aren't conservative enough on spending, abortion, gun rights and other issues. The group is best known for ranking lawmakers on a conservative scorecard and spending millions of dollars to support campaigns against moderate Republicans.
Empower Texans heavily criticized Bonnen this year during his first term as House speaker and the meeting with Sullivan surprised many lawmakers. Bonnen had promised House Republicans he would work to preserve their majority and would punish any lawmakers who campaigned against incumbents.
Empower Texans' media outlet has been granted Senate media credentials but not for the House, and Sullivan has sued the House in an attempt to get in.
SMU Political Science Professor Cal Jillson is surprised that the committee voted to call in the Texas Rangers to investigate.
“I am surprised because that ups the ante,” he said. “Dennis Bonnen had appeared to be very sure footed he had the support of the entire Republican caucus and lots of Democrats. And now he's discredited himself in the mind of many. Youll never get that confidence back completely. So can he remain Speaker? That’s an open question.”
Jillson says it’s an open problem at the end of a legislative session where the big three Republican leadership touted their successes.
“To have one of the main members of that team discredit himself is a problem for all of them,” he said.
Bonnen has denied that there was any credentials deal with Sullivan, or that he offered Sullivan a "target list" of incumbents to campaign against. But Sullivan has said he recorded the meeting and has played it for a select group of political allies and Republican consultants. Some of Bonnen's supporters in the House have defended the speaker.
Bonnen last week issued a vague apology for "hurtful" comments he made when meeting with Sullivan but didn't give any details. He has called on Sullivan to release the meeting recording to the public, which Sullivan hasn't done.