Texas Democrats Sue Over Secret Meeting Between House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, Empower Texans CEO

The Texas Democratic Party is suing House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan, alleging they created an unregistered political action committee and violated other state election laws. The lawsuit, filed in Travis County District Court on Thursday, stems from a June 12 meeting Sullivan had with Bonnen and Republican Caucus Chairman Dustin Burrows in Bonnen’s Capitol office. In the meeting, Sullivan has said, Bonnen and Burrows offered to give writers at his website, Texas Scorecard, House media credentials in the next legislative session in exchange for Sullivan’s political group targeting 10 Republican incumbents in next year’s primary elections. Sullivan said he rebuffed the offer. But Democrats allege that meeting and any agreements reached in it show a coordinated effort “between political actors intended to influence the election or defeat of specific candidates” and amounts to an unregistered political committee as defined by state law.The Democrats also allege that Bonnen and Burrows directed Sullivan to make political contributions or expenditures at their request under his political action committee, Empower Texans, which is illegal under Texas campaign finance law. They further claim that the alleged quid pro quo Bonnen offered Sullivan of public benefits in return for targeting elected officials amounts to a violation of state law.The complaint says any contribution proposed at the meeting violated state law because it was made in the Capitol and during the Legislature’s fundraising moratorium. The lawsuit is the latest turn in a saga that has gripped Texas politics for two weeks and one which now may come with serious legal ramifications. “Texans deserve to know what happens in their government on their dime, and that elected officials are getting their job done, not scheming to abuse power,” Gilberto Hinojosa, the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, said in a prepared statement. Bonnen and Burrows are not named directly in the suit. Bonnen is listed as a defendant as part of the “Unknown Political Committee” the lawsuit alleges was formed at the June meeting. That committee includes Sullivan, Bonnen “and perhaps others working in concert to attempt to defeat members of the Texas House of Representatives.” The lawsuit may expedite the production of a complete account about what happened at the meeting between Bonnen, Burrows and Sullivan. Since making his allegations in late July, Sullivan has slowly trickled out more of the meeting’s salacious details to the public, including derogatory terms Bonnen used to refer to some of his House colleagues. Last week, after Bonnen denied providing a target list, Sullivan said he had secretly recorded the meeting. Sullivan has since allowed a select group of lawmakers, Republican Party officials and conservative activists to listen to the recording but has refused to release the audio publicly, despite calls from both members of parties to release it. As part of their lawsuit, the Democrats request that Sullivan produce the entire recording of the June meeting and any other recordings Sullivan has of Bonnen and Burrows. The Democrats also ask Sullivan to produce a list of all the people who have listened to the June recording and any documentation relevant to that meeting. Ramos, a Richardson Democrat, is a plaintiff in the case because the Democratic Party says she “is one of the candidates mentioned in this recording as a target of the coordinated political efforts between the Speaker and Sullivan.” It is unclear whether she was named as a target, though multiple people who have heard the recording confirm Bonnen called her “awful.”According to multiple people who heard the recording, Bonnen said he has recruited a Republican opponent for Round Rock Democrat James Talarico. Talarico is not a plaintiff in the case. The lawsuit comes during a politically trying week for Bonnen. On Tuesday, after more embarrassing revelations about his meeting with Sullivan were revealed, Bonnen issued an apology to his 149 House colleagues for saying “terrible things” and asked for their forgiveness.But several of the lawmakers who were on the list of 10 Republican targets denounced the alleged actions of Bonnen and Burrows and called for an investigation by the GOP Caucus. One of those alleged targets, Rep. Steve Allison of San Antonio, said that he listened to Sullivan’s recording and that Bonnen and Burrows “warrant further investigation and possible action by the Caucus, the House, or others.”On Wednesday, Rep. Morgan Meyer, a Republican from Dallas who chairs the House General Investigating Committee, announced he’d convene a hearing Monday “with the intention of launching an investigation” into Sullivan’s claims. Meyer, whom Bonnen elevated to the post of chairman this session, said “bringing transparency, information access and accountability to this matter" is vital. But the actions of the committee - which can issue subpoenas, hire outside investigators or tap the state's existing criminal investigative capability, such as the Texas Rangers - may complicate matters. Under state law, a person testifying about incriminating behavior before the Legislature may not be prosecuted or indicted for any actions about which they truthfully testify, potentially giving Bonnen, Burrows and Sullivan immunity in any further legal actions if they testify before the committee.   Continue reading...

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