Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen, right, with Governor Greg Abbott, left, discuss teacher pay and school finance in May 2019. AP Photo/Eric Gay
Less than three months ago, Dennis Bonnen was on top of the world—or the Texas Capitol, at least. But in a stunning reputational about-face, the Texas House Speaker may soon have the Texas Rangers knocking on his front door with questions about his role in one of the biggest scandals in state politics in years.
So, what the hell happened? In a word, hubris. Instead of dancing with the ones who brung him, Bonnen tried to salsa with a serpent. In this case, the snake was Empower Texans, a radically right-wing insurgent group financed in large part by a West Texas oil billionaire who thinks that the ideal system of governance is a theocratic Christian kingdom.
At the start of the 86th Legislature, Bonnen, a longtime creature of the Lege (22 years and counting), was unanimously—and seemingly out of nowhere—elected by his colleagues to succeed Republican state House Speaker Joe Straus and lead the lower chamber. He guided the House through the 2019 session, avoiding political landmines like constitutional carry, Confederate monuments, and voter suppression while shepherding conservatives, moderate GOPers, and Democrats to almost unanimously support a massive bipartisan school finance and property tax deal. The utter lack of drama was almost a scandal in itself. There was nary a single person, Democrat or Republican, in the crowded halls of the Texas Capitol who had a bad word to say about him.
House Speaker Dennis Bonnen (center) speaks with state Representatives Terry Canales (left) and Poncho Nevárez (right) during the 2019 session. Kate Groetzinger
That is, with the exception of Michael Quinn Sullivan, the once-fearsome leader of Empower Texans, the well-financed PAC that excels at funding right-wing challengers to GOP incumbents. MQS, as Sullivan is known, had grown increasingly hostile throughout the session as Bonnen neutralized his once-loyal band of Freedom Caucus lackeys and steered the House away from the far right’s priorities.
As the session wound down, the specter of a contentious 2020 election cycle—one in which House Democrats hoped to take the majority—eclipsed the pink dome. Bonnen publicly called for a political détente. “If you campaign against another one of your colleagues, two things will happen to you,” Bonnen warned. “I will weigh in against you, and if I’m fortunate enough to continue as speaker, you will find yourself not well positioned in the next session.”
This is where things take a turn for the bizarre. Shortly after the session ended, Bonnen and his top deputy, state Representative Dustin Burrows, met at the Capitol with Sullivan. The latter alleged that the two Republican legislators tried to strike a deal with him in which Empower Texans would agree to target a list of 10 incumbent Republicans on Bonnen’s naughty list and spare the rest. In the exchange, Sullivan alleges, Bonnen offered to give Texas Scorecard, an arm of Empower Texans, media credentials to cover the 2021 session. (MQS has long tried to get credentials for Scorecard, but the House has reasonably rejected those requests because the website is a political enforcement tool, not a legitimate journalistic outlet.)
In short, after demanding an armistice from House members, Bonnen stood accused of promptly turning around and breaking that agreement by cutting a shady, and potentially illegal, deal behind closed doors with the number-one political foe of the Texas House.
Bonnen at a Capitol press conference to announce the GOP leadership’s plan to raise sales taxes in May 2019. Justin Miller
At first, Bonnen forcefully pushed back against Sullivan’s account. Then, Sullivan revealed that he had the whole affair on tape, complete with the speaker apparently making homophobic and derogatory insults about certain House members, including two first-term Democrats.
Bonnen was forced to issue a mea culpa. “I was stupid to take a meeting with an individual who has worked hard to divide our House,” the speaker wrote in an email to his House colleagues. “I said terrible things that are embarrassing to the members, to the House, and to me personally.” He did not address the growing consensus from people who heard that tape that he had, in fact, engaged in a quid pro quo transaction with Sullivan. Meanwhile, Burrows, the only other person directly involved in this whole thing, has gone completely AWOL.
From there, things have only gotten worse. Bonnen’s stock among the party base has taken a big hit as many activists believe that this merely exposes Bonnen’s true colors—that he’s not a true conservative, but merely an emblem of the Lege’s swampy cronyism and corruption. On the other side, the Texas Democratic Party filed a lawsuit last week against Sullivan and Bonnen for effectively conspiring to launch an unregistered political action committee and, in doing so, violating campaign finance and ethics violations.
Daniel Greer, an activist with Direct Action Texas, a right-wing group aligned with Empower Texans, listened to the recording and published what he claims are excerpts from Bonnen and Burrows’ meeting with Sullivan, which provide the clearest evidence thus far that Bonnen directly attempted to get Sullivan to target specific members in exchange for media credentials.
After demanding an armistice from House members, Bonnen stood accused of promptly turning around and breaking that agreement.
“I would prefer you not hammer me every chance you get. But as long as you don’t spend against me,” Bonnen said, according to Direct Action, before listing some of the Republican incumbents who Sullivan could go after—those who had gotten in the way of conservative priorities like a state ban on taxpayer-funded lobbyists.
Bonnen also allegedly said at other points, “All right, so we are clear the money is the issue and back down on the rhetoric” and “We can make this work. I’ll put you guys on the floor next session.”
Sullivan has let a select number of legislators and conservative activists listen to the tape, many of whom have publicly confirmed that the contents of the conversation are as bad as—if not worse than—Sullivan alleges. One of those legislators was state Representative Travis Clardy, a Republican from Nacogdoches who said he was on Bonnen’s supposed hit list. Of Bonnen’s comments, Clardy told the Dallas Morning News that “They were made flippantly and they were disrespectful. It was repugnant. This is my fourth term and this is the most disappointing thing that I’ve ever seen.”
Last week, Nicole Collier, a Democratic representative from Fort Worth and vice chair of the House General Investigating Committee, formally requested that committee chair, Morgan Meyer, convene a hearing to address the allegations. He promptly agreed.
On Monday morning, the Capitol was eerily quiet as custodial staff mopped lonely hallways and wiped down glass panes. It felt like being at school over summer vacation. But deep in the recesses of the building, reporters, legislative staffers, and conservative activists milled about in a hearing room, waiting for the committee to convene.
When the members finally emerged from the back room, Meyer banged his gavel and went through formal proceedings before ordering the committee to enter executive session in private. Within an hour, Meyer and the committee emerged to unanimously vote in favor of the Texas Rangers launching a formal investigation into whether Bonnen and Burrows had violated campaign finance and ethics laws.
Bonnen during the 2019 legislative session. Kate Groetzinger
Of course, it’s still possible that Bonnen emerges from this whole thing intact and in power. This is Texas, after all, and politicians have survived worse scandals. Indeed, members of his staff appear to be trying to soften the ground, tweeting out an op-ed written by the former chair of the Texas Ethics Commission headlined, “Hardball politics isn’t a crime” that made an abbreviated case for why, if the allegations are true, Bonnen would not have attempted political bribery.
But if the accusations pan out, it’s more likely that this is a ruinous moment in Bonnen’s 20-plus-year career in the Legislature. To use a technical term, it’s a political clusterfuck.
As veteran political journalist R.G. Ratcliffe noted in Texas Monthly, the legal stakes are immensely high: “At least nine state campaign finance laws in question are Class A misdemeanors, each punishable by a fine of up to $4,000 and a year in county jail. A bribery conviction is a second-degree felony, punishable by two to twenty years in prison.”
“I said terrible things that are embarrassing to the members, to the House, and to me personally.”
This all raises the question of “Why?” Bonnen was at the top of his game and widely respected. Despite his long-standing reputation for hot-headedness and ruthless political maneuvers, Bonnen projected a restrained, steady, even collegial presence from the Speaker’s dais during a relatively drama-free session.
Now the suspicion is that Bonnen’s transformation into an even-handed leader was merely a well-executed charade. That he was still as vengeful as ever, held venomous grudges against plenty of his Republican and Democratic colleagues—the ones who helped elect him as Speaker—and was intent on playing “hardball politics” to consolidate his newfound power. That his public call for an electoral detente was a thinly veiled ruse that he expected everyone but himself to abide by.
Still, that would merely be hypocrisy, an immensely forgivable offense in the world of politics. His political crime (to say nothing of the alleged actual crimes) was his hubris. Bonnen believed that his No. 1 political enemy—the one he had all but humiliated during the 2019 session—was just as cynical as he was and, for the right price, would eagerly serve as his political mercenary.