The Texas Heist, a new documentary released on YouTube by the right-wing media outlet Texas Scorecard, opens with what’s presented as a conundrum. Over a montage of people in hooded jackets breaking into cars, ransacking homes, and pointing guns directly at the camera, the narrator and writer of the film, Michael Quinn Sullivan—known to his friends as MQS and to his detractors as “Mucus”—poses a question to the audience: If you caught a stranger committing a crime—say, stealing or looting, what would you do? If you’re not sure, Sullivan helpfully offers some suggestions. “Defend what’s yours, call a neighbor for help—maybe even call the police,” he says.
But what if you knew the person committing the crime? In that case, Sullivan reasons, you might be less likely to take action because doing so would mean admitting you were being taken advantage of by a friend or acquaintance—and no one likes to think he or she’s been duped. To drive home his point, Sullivan quotes Mark Twain as saying, “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.” There’s no evidence that Twain actually wrote or uttered this phrase. But making up quotes is the least of the sins of this piece of work.
Who are these friendly thieves? According to Sullivan, they are a cohort of the very Republicans that the right-wing donors and voters helped elect to the Texas House. And their crimes, he alleges, are far more despicable than picking a pocket or breaking into a car. These legislators are guilty of not helping pass the priority bills championed by Sullivan, his allies, and his paymasters, led by Midland oilman and Christian nationalist Tim Dunn.
To make his theft case to the jury of YouTube viewers, Sullivan travels all across Texas. While some of the documentary was recorded in the halls of the state capitol, other venues—the recording studio of right-wing podcaster Luke Macias, the living room of voluble agricultural commissioner Sid Miller—are far less grandiose. Sullivan interviews, as expert witnesses, a who’s-who of the Texas far-right: former state representatives Jonathan Stickland of Bedford and Bill Zedler of Arlington, and Texas GOP chairman Matt Rinaldi, among others. They all testify that certain Republicans in the Texas House are kowtowing to Democrats, who secretly control the Legislature. Miller, in particular, tries to paint a detailed criminal history. He speaks fondly of the good ol’ days of 2002, when Republicans took back the lower chamber from the Democrats. Back then, he says, “the House was the conservative body, and the Senate”— albeit controlled by Republicans—“was the liberal body.”
Fast forward to the 2008 election, when Democrats almost captured the House, and there was a hankering for new leadership. Given their newfound power, Democrats wanted a say in the legislative process, so most of them teamed up with just enough Republicans to elect center-right Republican Joe Straus of San Antonio as Speaker of the House and oust Tom Craddick, a staunch conservative from Midland. Since then, in the documentary’s telling, the Texas House has been led by a series of liberal House Speakers. No matter that the current balance of the House is 86–64 in Republicans’ favor and lawmakers in recent legislative sessions have passed abortion bans, imposed onerous voter-suppression measures, allowed permitless carry of firearms, outlawed certain drag shows, and ended diversity, equity, and inclusion offices and initiatives in state colleges and universities.
This supposed history lesson is a solid third of the 38-minute documentary. In the climax of The Texas Heist, Sullivan—in spliced-together interviews—convenes a sort of roundtable of his featured guests and asks them who’s responsible for Democrats taking over the Texas House. Democrats, who Sullivan said are “again front and center in Speaker Phelan’s leadership team,” of course shoulder some of the blame. In one of the documentary’s more absurd moments, Sullivan calls out Democratic state representative Joe Moody of El Paso, who has had committee chairmanships the last few sessions. Moody, Sullivan said, recently sent an email to supporters “bragging about his role in the leadership of the House this year, driving outcomes for the Democrats.” (In an attempt to hammer home the point that Moody is a liberal darling, a voice actor reads a snippet from the email as an image of Moody wearing a COVID-19 face mask and a Black Lives Matter T-shirt appears on-screen).
Sullivan and his panel reserve their real vitriol, however, for Republicans whom they claim are the Democrats’ allies in killing right-wing priorities such as a voucher program that would allow parents to use taxpayer funds to pay part of the cost of a private education. The documentary calls out twelve Republicans, affectionately dubbed the “dirty dozen”: Dustin Burrows of Lubbock, Charlie Geren of Fort Worth, Craig Goldman of Fort Worth, Justin Holland of Rockwall, Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi, Jacey Jetton of Richmond, Ken King of Canadian, Stephanie Klick of Fort Worth, Jeff Leach of Plano, Andrew Murr of Junction, Glenn Rogers of Graford, and Lynn Stucky of Denton. Sullivan identifies all as “lieutenants” of the archenemy, House Speaker Dade Phelan, who makes several appearances in the documentary—usually in archival clips. (Sullivan also made sure to include that scene of Phelan allegedly drunk on the House floor).
Sullivan presents himself as an underdog crusader out to expose Republicans lawmakers who had it coming. He has long striven to purify and shape the Texas GOP in line with his particular vision and that of the wealthy Texans who finance his activities. He has a deep roster of political enemies that he seems hellbent on lengthening. He’s nicknamed “Mucus” not only as a play on his initials but also because of his reputation for slime slinging. In 2014, the Texas Ethics Commission ordered him to pay a $10,000 fine after fellow Republicans accused him of acting as an unregistered lobbyist. His groups have also spent lavishly on Republican primary races with the goal of unseating legislators that he and his bosses believe are too moderate.
The alleged crimes of the Republicans that his documentary targets vary. Sullivan has a host of slights: tea party priorities such as school vouchers, fully eliminating property taxes, and securing the border have stalled out in the House. It’s likely that Geren, Holland, King, Murr, and Rogers are all in the doghouse because they voted against Abbott’s school voucher bill. But nearly two dozen Republicans voted against it, and not everyone got the honor of joining the “dirty dozen,” so these twelve members’ crimes must go deeper. Sullivan also identifies them as Phelan’s “enablers,” and, indeed, almost all twelve have been appointed to leadership roles by the House Speaker since he assumed the position. None appear in the documentary to defend themselves, though Sullivan says he left voicemails offering to let them do so.
If you squint hard enough, you can see Sullivan’s theory of the case: old-school conservatives such as Geren do sometimes get crosswise with the 3 percent of Texans who decide Republican primaries, and with the big-money donors who dominate Texas politics. Geren, earlier this year, for instance, called out Rinaldi on social media for launching radio attack ads against Phelan—though Geren’s voting record proves he isn’t a Democrat moonlighting as a Republican.
Other supposed villains, however, make less sense. Take Burrows, the chair of the powerful House Calendars Committee. He and Sullivan aren’t exactly friends: in 2019, Sullivan leaked audio he had secretly recorded of Burrows and former House Speaker Dennis Bonnen recruiting him to target members of their caucus with right-wing primary challengers. But there’s no denying that Burrows is a ride-or-die Republican. During this past year’s regular legislative session, he authored one of the landmark right-wing pieces of legislation, which critics have dubbed the “Death Star bill,” because it will override many laws and regulations in cities and counties that have elected Democrats as their leaders. (A Travis County district judge on Wednesday ruled that Burrow’s bill—set to take effect on September 1—is unconstitutional. The ruling will be appealed.)
Then there’s Leach, a former member of the far-right Freedom Caucus and one of the more conservative House representatives who tosses red meat with zeal. This session, he authored a bill that aimed to require health plans that cover transition-related treatments for transgender Texans to also cover “all possible adverse consequences” related to this care as well as “any procedure or treatment necessary” for detransitioning—a priority of the right. Goldman and Jetton, meanwhile, both hold leadership roles in the Texas House Republican Caucus.
A star celebrity cameo clarifies what the crime of the twelve really is. Sullivan interviews Ken Paxton, and while the impeached attorney general doesn’t talk about his impending Senate trial explicitly because, well, he’s under a gag order, a second infraction of the dirty dozen becomes clear. All had voted in favor of Paxton’s removal from office. (Other once darling conservative House members, including state representatives Briscoe Cain of Deer Park and Matt Shaheen of Plano, also voted for Paxton’s impeachment, but escape notice.)
Paxton’s friends—Miller, Stickland, Sullivan, Zedler, and practically anyone else featured—speak freely where Paxton can’t. Sullivan and his allies have tweeted about the “coming political war” and made threats to anyone in the Senate who might support Paxton’s impeachment. Sullivan has said that the impending trial was orchestrated by Phelan’s “cult.” The documentary suggests that Paxton was impeached by the House to distract voters from the fact that Republican priority bills didn’t make it through the chamber. “They know that what they produced in that legislative session is not good enough for voters,” Stickland says at one point. “So they needed a distraction of epic proportions.” One other guest simply called the impeachment trial a “witch hunt.”
In the final minutes of the film we get an answer as to whether the “dirty dozen” can redeem themselves. Spoiler: They can! As former House member Rick Green, who in retirement is building a $60 million “Patriot Academy” in Bryan, says near the end, it’s never too late to repent. “I’m telling you, we love fighters for freedom,” Green says. “No matter what that legislator [has] done in the past, if they’re willing to take on the tough fights right now and stand up for us, we will rally around the banner of liberty when somebody raises it.”
Talk of redemption is easy, but the film’s message remains clear: Republicans who fail to kiss the rings of Sullivan and the billionaires who bankroll his efforts will face consequences, not only in the form of well-funded primary challengers but also through attacks via every medium, including YouTube.