86th LegislatureIssuesState HouseStatewide NewsHere’s a Timeline of the Bonnen, Burrows, and Empower Texans Controversy

For those trying to follow what's happened in the ongoing drama over an alleged quid pro quo offered to Empower Texans by Speaker Dennis Bonnen.
August 9, 2019
As the controversy surrounding Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) and Chairman Dustin Burrows’ (R-Lubbock) meeting with Empower Texans’ Michael Quinn Sullivan continues to unfold, it’s easy for details to get lost along the way. 

Here’s a timeline of what’s happened so far.

May 15: Bonnen goes on the record saying he won’t campaign against any sitting member of the Texas House, R or D:

“What makes the House unique and successful, in the country, not simply here but across the country, is that we are bipartisan. And the central component of our bipartisanship is that you don’t see sitting members of the House campaigning against another sitting member of the House.”

June 12: The meeting occurs between Bonnen, Burrows, and Sullivan in Bonnen’s office.

Tangentially, June 12 was also the day of the bill signing ceremony for Senate Bill 2, the session’s property tax reform legislation. The bill’s author, Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), was notably absent from the event and it was speculated that he was not invited. 

Bettencourt was recently quoted saying, “I wasn’t invited to the SB 2 signing, but in hindsight, I’m glad I wasn’t invited to any meeting in the Capitol that day.”

July 25: Sullivan releases the article on Empower Texans’ website detailing the meeting.

The grassroots leader alleged that the Speaker listed 10 GOP incumbent House members he wanted Sullivan to challenge, and, in return, Bonnen would grant Sullivan’s organization the House press credentials they had been previously denied.

Sullivan’s account of the meeting was detailed and stated that Bonnen “made a show” of leaving the room before Burrows was the one to read Sullivan the list of expendable members. 

The list was, reportedly, comprised of Reps. Steve Allison (R-San Antonio), Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin), Ernest Bailes (R-Shepherd), Travis Clardy (R-Nacogdoches), Drew Darby (R-San Angelo), Kyle Kacal (R-College Station), Stan Lambert (R-Abilene), John Raney (R-College Station), Phil Stephenson (R-Wharton), and Tan Parker (R-Flower Mound).

Sullivan says he wrote to Bonnen to decline on paper following the meeting and includes a copy of Bonnen’s letter in response.

Sullivan does not include his initial letter to Bonnen and declines to release it when asked.

July 26: Bonnen sends an email to members of the House Republican Caucus, in which he states Sullivan was the one to initiate the meeting and that he “knew” Sullivan’s “long-term goal” was to secure press passes for Empower Texans’ media arm.

Bonnen attempted to shift the narrative, saying, “I also knew, at the end of the day, the House Rules—not the Speaker—determine who gets media credentials. Frankly, I am agnostic as to whether the House ever grants them floor access or not.”

The Speaker said his goal in this meeting with Sullivan was to “explain how important it is for his organization to not engage against House Republicans in the upcoming March primaries because of the importance of the November general election cycle.”

He ended with a commitment to work for the reelection of the caucus members, stating, “I look forward to vigorously campaigning and supporting every one of you in both the upcoming primary and general elections.”

July 29: Bonnen issues his first media statement since the spark of the controversy with some very strong language, denying portions of Sullivan’s claims. 

“Let me be clear. At no point in our conversation was Sullivan provided with a list of target Members.”

However, Sullivan’s account alleged that it was not Bonnen, but Burrows who was the one to read the list.

Later that day, Sullivan releases another piece on the Texas Scorecard website outlining 3 questions he said must be asked of Chairman Burrows in light of Bonnen’s latest statement.

Notably, Sullivan used quotes when referencing these questions, causing some to speculate Sullivan was harboring a recording.

July 30: The Texan reports that, if Sullivan’s account is correct, both Bonnen and Burrows would have violated their own Republican Caucus bylaws.

New language was added to the caucus bylaws this last legislative session, stipulating that caucus members could not campaign against other members and, if these rules were violated, could face expulsion.

As Chairman, Burrows directly oversaw the adopting of this language.

July 31: Sullivan announces he recorded the conversation between him and the two lawmakers. 

Though the recording is not released publicly, Sullivan said, “Republican legislators, party officials, and conservative movement leaders who may feel they are impacted by the recording are welcome to contact my office and we will make arrangements for them to listen to the audio in the presence of my lawyer.”

Later that day, Bonnen responded to Sullivan’s announcement with an emphatic statement of his own.

“Mr. Sullivan, release your recording. Release it in its entirety.” 

Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford), who was one of the first to listen to the recording, told The Texan, “Michael has misled no one. In fact, he understated the severity of what happened in the speaker’s office.” 

Rep. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands) issued a strong statement to the Texas Tribune after listening to the audio, saying, “What I derived from the audiotape – it’s very clear – is that Speaker Bonnen was not truthful about a list not being provided. Clearly, a list was referenced, over and over and over again. Multiple times.”

August 1: On Chad Hasty’s Lubbock Radio show, Stickland says that not only did Bonnen offer press credentials to Sullivan, but he said he’d also take credentials from Austin insider Scott Braddock, editor of the Quorum Report, a longtime antagonist of Sullivan and conservatives. 

Braddock appeared on Hasty’s show directly after Stickland, but refrained from commenting until he knew the contents of the recording firsthand.

One of the 10 listed members, Rep. Travis Clardy (R-Nacogdoches), voiced his extreme disappointment as well, telling the Dallas Morning News that the recording was “consistent with what [Sullivan] wrote…this is the most disappointing thing that I’ve ever seen.”

Clardy, one of the more moderate Republicans in the House, is often found at odds with Sullivan and his grassroots group.

Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso) serves as Bonnen’s speaker pro tempore and broke his silence with a short statement on Twitter. 

Others from across the state make their way to Austin to listen to the tape, and the accounts of the contents continue to corroborate each other.

August 2: Rep. Kyle Biedermann (R-Fredericksburg) listens to the recording, and releases a statement to The Texan. 

“Texans deserve transparency and open government. So many of us have a dim view on politics, and I’m saddened by the Speaker’s statements. These comments only confirm our worst assumptions about the political process. Rightfully so, we expect our leaders to have honesty, integrity and truthfulness in the way they conduct themselves in public life and this standard was not met.”

August 3: James Dickey, Chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, released a statement, a portion of which read, “Any actions of our party leaders require full information before they trigger a formal process. We are a bottom-up party, with all major actions and stances set by the delegates and voters. This is no exception.”

August 6: Bonnen sends an apology email to all House members:

“I’m sorry. I was stupid to take a meeting with an individual who has worked hard to divide our House. It was a mistake.

I said terrible things that are embarrassing to the members, to the House, and to me personally. You know me well enough to know I say things with no filter. That’s not an excuse for the hurtful things I said or the discussion that was had.

Once again, I call for the release of the entire unedited recording so the House is no longer held hostage, and we can begin to heal.

I have reached out to many of you, and I want to visit with all of you. I hope I have the chance to apologize to you personally.

I am truly sorry from the bottom of my heart. I ask for your forgiveness, and I hope to rebuild your trust.”

Rep. Tan Parker (R-Flower Mound), one of the 10 targets on Bonnen’s alleged list, former candidate for speaker, and former Republican House Caucus Chairman, responds by releasing a statement condemning the actions of his fellow members.

Other members are quick to follow Parker’s lead, releasing various statements of their own.

“I’ve made mistakes & Speaker Bonnen has made a mistake. This is a strong statement from our Speaker that exhibits humility, admits missteps & seeks to make/rebuild the trust that has been broken. This starts the healing to move the House forward to build on the 86th.” – Rep. Drew Springer (R-Muenster), via Twitter

“This is a strong, much-needed statement from our Speaker. Like me, & all of us, Dennis is imperfect. But this statement exhibits a refreshing humility that admits missteps & seeks to make rebuild the trust that has been broken. A great step forward for him & the Texas House.” – Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano), via Twitter

“Speaker [Bonnen] admits, like the rest of us, he is actually human. He made a mistake and is imperfect but has apologized for his actions and has taken responsibility for them. No excuses. Life lesson learned. Like [Rep. Leach] I choose forgiveness.” – Rep. Craig Goldman (R-Fort Worth), via Twitter

It is always important to seek forgiveness. I appreciate Dennis reaching out to members with his statement, and to each of us individually. This is a step toward rebuilding trust and turning our focus back on the business of Texas.” – Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano), via Twitter

“While I haven’t listened to the private recording, why can’t we accept the apology from the Speaker, while working to keep a Republican majority in the House and moving conservative policies down the field?” – Rep. Mayes Middleton (R-Wallisville), via Twitter

“Apologies are about accepting fault & righting wrongs. I appreciate the Speaker sharing his apology with all House members & reaching out to those personally impacted. Texans will be better served when this recording is released in its entirety.” – Rep. Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont), via Twitter

“I would hope he resigns. That’s the honorable thing to do, at minimum resign as speaker…it’s exactly as Michael Quinn Sullivan said.” – Rep. Phil Stephenson (R-Wharton), one of the 10 members listed in the meeting and the first to call for Bonnen’s resignation, told the Wharton Journal Spectator

“Admitting a mistake is difficult. Forgiving someone for that mistake is often more difficult. Speaker Bonnen’s sincere apology is a good thing. It’s time to forgive, so we can all move forward.” – Rep. Scott Sanford (R-McKinney), via Twitter

“It takes strength of character to admit when you are wrong. I applaud the speaker for apologizing to the members of the Texas House.  As a Christian, I am taught to recognize those who seek forgiveness. For the sake of Texas, I hope the recording is released in full so we can move past this and restore unity among the members. Now more than ever, Texans need to be one and indivisible.” – Rep. Ben Leman (R-Anderson), via Twitter

“We all make mistakes. It’s hard to admit sometimes. The Speaker has apologized for mistakes made. It’s time to move forward for the cause that is bigger than any one of us.” – Rep. Cole Hefner (R-Mt. Pleasant), via Twitter

Perhaps most notably, Rep. Jon Rosenthal (D-Houston), one of the Democrat representatives Bonnen reportedly disparaged in the closed-doors meeting, released a joint statement with Bonnen. He said that initially, he was “shocked and disappointed,” but had forgiven the Speaker and was looking forward to “putting this in the past.”

Though Bonnen’s apology struck a chord with some, others were unsatisfied, making note of the fact that Bonnen only apologizes for the “terrible” statements he made. He made no reference to his alleged attempt to unseat 10 of his members or the alleged quid pro quo he offered Sullivan.

August 7: Rep. Michelle Beckley (D-Carrollton), another member who was reportedly mentioned in a negative light by the speaker, was not as quick to forgive the leader of her chamber.

Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer (D-San Antonio) sent an email to House Democrats, urging Bonnen to come clean. Cassi Pollock at the Texas Tribune was the first to report on it.

“Getting to the truth is up to Bonnen not Quinn Sullivan. Bonnen was in the room, those words came out of his mouth — he doesn’t need a tape. Many of us are growing tired of the pivot to the MQS tape.”

Rep. Nicole Collier (D-Fort Worth), vice-chair of the House General Investigating Committee, called for an investigation into the controversy. Shortly after, Chairman Morgan Meyer (R-Dallas) announced a hearing would be set for Monday, August 12.

Other members continued to take sides.

While I am saddened by the whole meeting between Speaker Bonnen and Mr. Sullivan, I am very encouraged by our Speaker’s willingness to apologize both publically, and personally to each of us.  Healing takes time, but I am ready to move #onward together to 87thTXLege.” – Rep. Tom Oliverson (R-Cypress), via Twitter   

“After serving w/ [Bonnen] I can attest to the type of leader he is & believe he’s a man of sincerity. His record of fighting for his constituents and the members of the #txlege House speaks for itself & I believe TX is better for it. A united House is capable of greatness.” – Rep. John Zerwas (R-Richmond), via Twitter

“I have known Dennis his entire life as only a brother could, and I know his apology is sincere. He loves the Texas house and the Members. I appreciate him coming forward with this apology and making the dedication to continue to grow.” – Rep. Greg Bonnen (R-Friendswood), via Twitter

“Speaker Dennis Bonnen led a really great session that benefited all Texans. He is a man of experience and integrity who always speaks his mind. He continues to have my complete support.” – Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Canton), via Facebook

Rep. Steve Allison, another one of the 10, shared a less glowing statement regarding his colleague’s actions.

“The seriousness of the conduct is compounded by Speaker Bonnen’s previous and persistent denials of statements and actions so clearly established in the recording…Any confidence and trust in the leadership of Speaker Bonnen and Representative Burrows has been irreparably damaged by their own inexplicable and arrogant actions.”

August 8: The Texas Democratic Party and Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos (D-Richardson) filed a lawsuit “against dark money operative Michael Quinn Sullivan in an effort to hold him and co-conspirator Speaker Dennis Bonnen accountable for potential campaign finance violations of the Texas Election Code.”

On the same day, Biedermann came out as the third member to call for Bonnen’s resignation.

August 9: Bonnen’s office responds to media requests for Sullivan’s initial letter declining the speaker’s reported offer, citing Chapter 306 of the Texas Government Code which protects communication between elected officials and citizens.

The letter is released later that day by Bonnen’s office.

August 12: The House General Investigating Committee came to order in a hearing set to investigate the allegations against Bonnen and Burrows. 

Chairman Morgan Meyer gaveled the committee to order 15 minutes after 10am, called for a moment of silence in light of the El Paso tragedy, and moved the committee to executive session after approximately 3 minutes on the dais. 

The General Investigating Committee is comprised of Reps. Morgan Meyer (R-Dallas), Nicole Collier (D-Fort Worth), Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth), Candy Noble (R-Allen), and Leo Pacheco (D-San Antonio). 

Notably, two lawmakers not on the committee, Reps. Richard Peña Raymond (D-Laredo) and Michelle Beckley (D-Carrollton), were present at the beginning of the hearing. 

After about 50 minutes behind closed doors, the committee returned to the dais.

Meyer said no decisions were made and no votes were taken during executive session, but called on the Texas Rangers Public Integrity Unit to investigate the “facts and circumstances surrounding” the June 12 meeting between Bonnen, Burrows, and Sullivan. Vice-chair Collier seconded the motion and the committee approves unanimously.

Meyer then made a statement, stating, “the chair and the members of this committee agree that it is the committee’s intention in adopting the motion that any investigation should follow the facts and the evidence without regard to political considerations.”

Meyer, who won reelection with a mere 220 votes, received $20,000 from Bonnen for “polling” as recently as June 25th. Krause, another member of the committee, also received the same.

August 16: Chairman Burrows resigned as House Republican Caucus Chairman.

Bonnen released a statement to the Texas Tribune, stating “Dustin Burrows is my friend and was a strong leader for the caucus. I respect his decision and I remain committed to strengthening our majority.”

Vice-chair Rep. Stephanie Klick (R-Fort Worth) replaced Burrows as chair of the caucus, and a vote to elect a new vice-chair must be scheduled within 30 days.

August 19: Lt. Governor Dan Patrick makes his first public statements regarding the controversy on the Mark Davis’ radio show.

Patrick called for the release of the tape for the sake of transparency, stating “If it exonerates him and the members say, ‘We’re fine to move on,’ and they move on. If it doesn’t and they go in a different direction, then that’s their choice. But Mark, let me say, we had a terrific session, and Dennis was a big part of it. But they got to get this resolved. The sooner they do, I think the better.”

This page will continue to be updated as the story continues to develop.


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McKenzie DiLullo

McKenzie DiLullo serves as Senior Editor at The Texan. Previously, she worked as a Capitol Director during the 85th legislative session before moving to Fort Worth to manage Senator Konni Burton’s campaign. In her free time, you might find her enjoying dog memes, staring at mountains, or proctoring personality tests.