Have you ever seen slow-motion footage of an atomic bomb test? There’s a bright flash of light and an explosion that starts small, and you could be forgiven for thinking, Is that it? Then the mushroom cloud starts building to the size of a mountain, and the shockwave starts to radiate out, and it becomes clear that a lot of things in the immediate vicinity are probably not going to be okay. That’s what it’s been like to watch the developments in the widening scandal that centers on accusations made on July 25 by conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan who, like most assassins, goes by all three of his names.
The initial flash came when MQS, as he’s known, claimed that House Speaker Dennis Bonnen offered to give media credentials to Sullivan’s right-wing advocacy group, Empower Texans, in exchange for help defeating ten Republican lawmakers on a hit list that Bonnen had assembled.
For a while, there was public silence, as Sullivan’s initial post on his website contained extraordinary claims and allegations, and no one could figure out whether to trust him. (Usually, the answer is “no.”) But then it was revealed that Sullivan possesses a tape that he secretly recorded of his conversation with Bonnen and that backs up his allegations—and the mushroom cloud began to rise and swell. It’s clear that this is the most significant political scandal in Texas politics in many years, one with potentially far-reaching implications for everything from Bonnen’s political future to the redrawing of congressional districts.
On top of that, it’s just one of the weirdest scandals to erupt in recent years in Texas politics, where a lot of weird things happen on a regular basis. And yet, the thing is difficult to translate to a general audience. The more you’ve stewed your brain in the sludge that flows through the Texas Legislature, the more transfixing this all is. Unfortunately, I have done quite a bit of that, and I am here to stew your brain too.
1) The tl;dr Version
The shortest version of this thing we’re calling Bonnghazi, instead of Bonnenghazi, because I’m not a sore loser, is this: On June 12, shortly after the end of the last legislative session, Bonnen, the new speaker of the House, and state representative Dustin Burrows, his lieutenant, had a meeting with Sullivan, a de facto leader of the Republican Party’s far-right faction. Sullivan runs Empower Texans a group funded largely by Midland oil billionaire Tim Dunn that pushes hard for legislation during session years and hard for far-right candidates in election years. Both sides acknowledge that the meeting happened.
In his initial post on July 25, Sullivan alleged that Bonnen offered him a deal: If Sullivan agreed to target ten Republicans for defeat in the upcoming Republican primary and leave other, favored Republicans alone, Bonnen would agree to grant press credentials to Sullivan’s organization, Empower Texans, to cover the 2021 legislative session on the floor of the House, something Sullivan has long wanted. Sullivan says Bonnen then left the room so that Burrows could read the list of names. That’s the core accusation, and one that poses a risk of legal consequences for Bonnen and Burrows. For most observers, the possibility that one of the most powerful elected officials in the state tried to bribe someone considered one of the biggest snakes in Texas politics was the most immediately significant feature of this scandal. But there are a lot of other things about Sullivan’s account that, if true, could be politically and legally damaging to Bonnen.
2) Dramatis Personae
Enter stage right, Bonnen, politically secure and well-regarded by Republicans of various stripes as well as many Democrats, at least until recently. Enter further right, Sullivan, an archconservative fire-starter with declining influence.
To understand how they fit into the broader political landscape and this political moment, let’s take a step back. In 2008, Democrats came close to winning control of the Texas House, taking 74 of 150 seats. They then joined together with dissident Republicans to elect a new Republican speaker, the relatively moderate Joe Straus. From the get-go, many conservatives hated Straus with a passion they typically reserve for kneeling football players. They saw Straus, who is Jewish, as the ultimate RINO, an apostate who didn’t fit the accepted mold of a Christian conservative warrior, and his House killed a lot of bills—including one that purported to protect Texans from an invasion of their restrooms by hordes of trans people—favored by hard-right conservatives. Sullivan was in charge of the sprawling and well-funded effort to get rid of Straus and take back the House.
For the better part of a decade, Sullivan’s fight against moderate Republicans was one of the best stories in Texas politics. That battle was bitter, bloody, and exceedingly weird. Dunn’s network funded an endless series of far-right Republican primary challengers, oddballs with wonderful names like “Damon Rambo” and “Briscoe Cain” and “Thomas McNutt,” the fruitcake king of Corsicana. They used dark money and front groups and played fast and loose. They behaved a bit like leftist insurgents, employing underhanded tactics they justified by the rightness of their cause. They spoke of their enemies in Manichaean terms. One year, an allied group shot months’ worth of surreptitious video of lawmakers hanging out at the Capitol and at bars in the hope of getting dirt on them. A lot of Republicans quickly learned to loathe Sullivan, as much as his backers hated Straus.
But Straus announced his retirement in 2018, and he was replaced by his number two—Dennis Bonnen. Bald-headed and volatile with a vague resemblance to James Carville, Bonnen is a veteran Lege rat who has been hanging out in the chamber since 1993, when he was in college. First elected in 1996, he’s one of the longest-serving members, despite being only 47. For many years, he had the reputation of being a bully and a loose cannon, and also of being whip-smart and good at politics.
As speaker, Bonnen’s anger and impulsiveness seemed to ebb. He built good relations with both Democrats and the right, even making Democrat Joe Moody of El Paso the speaker pro tem, his ostensible number two. Burrows became the second-ranking Republican in the chamber. Bonnen’s House mostly focused on bipartisan, complex issues like school finance and property taxes, and he won almost universal praise from members at the end of the session. (We at Texas Monthly put him on our Best list.) Weakened by Republican losses in the 2018 elections, the House Freedom Caucus—Sullivan’s faction—fell apart and fell in line. Coupled with an extremely unimpressive primary hunting season on Sullivan’s part, it seemed that Sullivan’s influence was declining. And then his enemies punched themselves in the nuts.
3) Dude, Why?
None of this makes sense, really. Why would Bonnen meet with Sullivan? Why would it not cross his mind that he was handing MQS a loaded gun? We still don’t have an answer to these questions.
Bonnen’s desire, presumably, is to remain speaker. The only threat to his job would be for Democrats to win control of the House, which is why Bonnen and other Republican bigwigs have taken pains to publicly state that they are only interested in the general election, not the GOP primaries. Bonnen even threatened to punish any state rep—Democrat or Republican—who campaigned against one of their colleagues. If he was going to break his word in such a spectacular fashion, why would he do it with Sullivan, who had made plain his distaste for Bonnen’s speakership over the last session?
Sullivan named the ten targets in his initial post: Steve Allison, Trent Ashby, Ernest Bailes, Travis Clardy, Drew Darby, Kyle Kacal, Stan Lambert, John Raney, Phil Stephenson, and Tan Parker. Some of these guys are on the “left” side of the GOP caucus, but others are squarely in the middle of the pack, neither right nor left. Clardy and Darby once had ambitions to become speaker, and some of the others had fights with leadership over bills, so perhaps Bonnen wanted to clean house. But the rest are unobjectionable or have blank records. Allison, a freshman, even received a sizable campaign donation from Bonnen’s PAC. The accusation didn’t make sense. It also seemed too big for even Sullivan to lie about.
4) Bonnen’s Denials
There aren’t any. Not really, once you drill down into what he said. Bonnen’s two initial statements seem suspiciously worded. In his first statement, he simply failed to address the list, instead saying that the meeting with Sullivan was to “seek peace.” Strangely, while he avoided the matter at hand, Bonnen included a lot of other weirdly specific information about the meeting, such as that the two had an extended discussion about Sullivan’s summer travel plans. (The summer plans keep coming up; Sullivan has since claimed that Bonnen offered him the use of his family’s cabin in Red River, New Mexico.)
In his second statement, Bonnen wrote: “Let me be clear. At no point in our conversation was Sullivan provided with a list of target Members.” This was a very lawyerly statement because Sullivan has always maintained that it was Burrows who provided the list after Bonnen left the room. Since the second statement, Bonnen has clammed up, declining to offer comment to any inquiring journalist. Instead, he’s been calling members one by one to talk to them. Burrows, meanwhile, fell off the face of the earth. Bonnen’s second statement reported that he instructed Burrows not to explain anything, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. He hasn’t talked to anybody about this or released any public statement, and for all we know he’s today out hiking the Appalachian Trail, or in Argentina, ready to start a new life as a gaucho.
5) Lordy, There’s a Tape!
Here’s the thing: Find any lawmaker’s smart elementary-school-aged kid, who has absorbed just a bit about the Legislature from dinner conversations, and inform her that you’re taking a meeting with Michael Quinn Sullivan. Flush with youthful innocence, nose filled with snot, she is likely to tell you: “Really? MQS? Damn. Watch out. Dude’s probably wired.” This thought seemingly did not occur to the Smartest Guys in the Room, Bonnen and Burrows.
On July 31, Sullivan announced that he had a tape, confirming a lot of people’s suspicions, and that he’d let prominent Republicans and conservatives listen to it. He didn’t want to release it, he said, because it would be too damaging to the Republican party. Clardy, Steve Toth, and Jonathan Stickland—always up for a good mud-wrestle—were among the first to listen to it. Now a wide variety of Republican officials have said they have heard the recording, from party activists to the state party chair to a growing number of members of Bonnen’s caucus. There exists the theoretical possibility the tape is phony, but that’s about the only wiggle room Bonnen has left.
The consensus quickly emerged that, if anything, the tape was even worse than Sullivan had described it. Not only was the quid-pro-quo element crystal clear, according the those who heard the tape, Bonnen and Burrows insulted other lawmakers using bigoted and vulgar language. Bonnen reportedly described one Democratic member as a closeted gay man and Michelle Beckley as “vile.”
This is devastating stuff for a speaker, who rules only by the consent of his members. If the tape is real, Bonnen would have been caught breaking his word in an incredibly damaging way to secure the illicit cooperation of a guy most people think he shouldn’t have met with at all. Bonnen then apparently lied about it, at least by omission, in the aftermath. And he reportedly slurred his members, to boot. In that case, not only would he probably not be speaker next session, he would face pressure to resign from his seat. And depending on what exactly is on the tape, he might even have broken the law along with Burrows, whose silence suddenly makes sense.
6) The Alleged Bribery Is the Main Thing
Bonnen allegedly offered to secure press credentials for Empower Texans in exchange for Sullivan’s cooperation. Accredited journalists are allowed to be on the floor of the House and basically hang out with lawmakers. Press credentials, you say? How trivial. But it’s not, really. It’s more than it seems.
Sullivan’s groups both endorse and fund candidates while effectively lobbying them on issues. Empower Texans keeps score during the session, and actively pushes lawmakers to support or kill individual bills. If you get a bad score, they may well cut off funding for you, urge other monied interests to do the same, and fund your next primary challenger.
Nonetheless Sullivan, who performed tours of duty in the early nineties with the Denison Herald and the Brazosport Facts, has long claimed to be a journalist first and foremost. In 2014, when he was charged with unregistered lobbying and fined a trivial sum by the Texas Ethics Commission after a two-year investigation, his defense was that he was a citizen working for a media organization, and he beat the fine in court. In his initial post kicking off the Bonnen scandal, Sullivan wrote: “Given my news background, Empower Texans has long operated as a news-media entity.” Funnily enough, the scandal has offered a comprehensive answer, if one were needed, to the question of whether Sullivan is a true muckraker: What legitimate news organization would withhold a taped interview that it says contains evidence of official wrongdoing, on the grounds that to reveal it would hurt a particular political party?
But Empower Texans’ shtick only works to the extent it’s able to put pressure on lawmakers. The House floor is a rowdy place where journalists and lawmakers mingle with each other pretty freely. Republican lawmakers have long opposed letting Sullivan’s group on the floor in part because they fear that Empower Texans’ “reporters” will use the opportunity to directly pressure members. That may be a misplaced fear, but either way, letting Sullivan’s people on the floor would grant them an advantage no other activist group has. It’s something of real value, a non-monetary contribution to the organization offered by a public official in exchange for the use of campaign cash.
Those who have heard the tape also say Bonnen and Burrows tried to sweeten the deal by offering to take press credentials away from a well-sourced reporter, Scott Braddock of Quorum Report, a venerable publication for Capitol insiders that has frequently sparred with Empower Texans.
7) This Is Going To Hurt the GOP
So far, the Bonnen scandal has played out as an internal GOP story—classic inside baseball, one lout against another. And, yes, it is that. But it’s also a story that holds potentially huge ramifications for the Texas Republican Party at a time when it needs discipline and unity in the lead-up to a potentially devastating election season in 2020. In order to take the House, Democrats need a lot of help, and it would be a boost if Republicans happened to collapse into infighting amid an unprecedented political scandal that knocks off one of their most important statewide leaders.
This dynamic has led political players to take sides, and/or to discount the allegations. Some have suggested nothing Sullivan says can be trusted even if he has a tape, or that the quickly growing number of Republicans who have heard the tape are lying. The folks who suggest these things may fear getting a speaker worse than Bonnen.
The scandal, however, concerns the public trust first and foremost. An elected official who engages in the kind of chicanery described by the Republicans who say they’ve have heard Bonnen on tape should not be in public office. Bonnen reportedly offered a gift—access to lawmakers—in pursuit of his own political gain, and then apparently lied to the public on multiple occasions about what happened. He reportedly showed extraordinarily poor judgement in about a dozen ways. If the recording is real, there’s no reason to trust him.
That said, Sullivan needs to release the tape, as Bonnen has asked him to do. (It remains unclear why Bonnen is asking for the tape to drop—it may be a bluff, or a case of mutually assured destruction.) There’s not going to be clarity about many aspects of the scandal until Sullivan complies. Having procured evidence of potentially illegal behavior by a public official, MQS has an ethical obligation to make that evidence public.
8) Where Are We Now?
There was something of a pause in the scandal in the aftermath of the mass killings by a white nationalist in El Paso, but this week, things started to kick into gear again. Bonnen has been making apology calls to those affected. Democrats have joined Bonnen in asking for the tape to be released, though their messaging on this matter has been pretty muddled, as it seemingly always is. The object of Bonnen’s reported homophobic slur accepted his apology in an unusual statement. Beckley complained on Twitter that her male counterparts had been contacted but she hadn’t heard a peep from Bonnen. On Thursday Democrats filed suit against Sullivan in an attempt to liberate the tape, claiming that he and Bonnen effectively formed an unregistered PAC when they met, in violation of laws that govern campaign contributions
Bonnen has been making more calls to Republicans, surely trying to suss out how much support he has left, while members of his party have become more vocal about something needing to happen. There’s widespread discontent with Burrows’s silence since last month and with the way Bonnen has handled this mess, seemingly hoping to wave it away.
On Wednesday, the vice chair of the House General Investigating Committee, Democrat Nicole Collier, called for an investigation. The Republican chairman of that committee, Morgan Meyer, quickly accepted Collier’s request and scheduled a hearing for August 12. Why had he allowed it, some wondered? Scott Braddock, the reporter whom Burrows and Bonnen reportedly threatened to strip of his House press credentials, noted a section in the Texas Government Code that outlines the powers and responsibilities of the Legislature that reads as follows: “If a person testifies or produces a document while claiming that the testimony or document may incriminate him, the person may not be indicted or prosecuted for any transaction, matter, or thing about which the person truthfully testified or produced evidence.”
In other words, Bonnen and Burrows could theoretically gain immunity from criminal prosecution by admitting guilt in front of a committee whose members Bonnen placed there. Maybe they won’t—it would require admitting guilt. But it remains hard, two weeks in, to say exactly what more attractive options they might have. See that mushroom cloud? It’s getting bigger.