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Analysis: Michael Quinn Sullivan’s Torment Of Dennis Bonnen Could End Next Week

Next week could see the public airing of a secret recording that has had the Texas Capitol twisted in drama for most of the summer. With that, members of the Texas House can decide whether their speaker, Dennis Bonnen, made a big mistake or a little one.


House Speaker Dennis Bonnen during the Texas Fallen Heroes ceremony at the Capitol on May 25, 2019.

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Maybe Dennis Bonnen's long summer of bad dreams is coming to an end.

Michael Quinn Sullivan, a political provocateur and a burr in the saddles of establishment Republicans, alleges Bonnen, the speaker of the Texas House, and state Rep. Dustin Burrows of Lubbock offered his organization House floor access during legislative sessions in return for help beating some incumbent Republicans in next year's primaries. Now, Sullivan says (via an email newsletter to supporters) that he's finally going to let the public hear his recording of the meeting where that took place.

That might well prove to be bad news for one or more of the three participants. Maybe for all of them. But it will end the innuendo and constant speculation fueled by Sullivan's drip-drip-drip disclosures over the summer. He's been playing the recording for select politicians and activists and leaving them to tell others what they heard, relying on his engineered hearsay to sow doubt among state representatives about their speaker's trustworthiness.

Many have said that what they heard was close to Sullivan's own account. Some have downplayed Bonnen's comments as little more than insensitive and crass, the political blustering and plotting regularly heard from men in high places. But all of the witnesses were hand-selected by Sullivan and his crew, which leaves fair room for doubters and others who'd like to hear the evidence before passing final judgement.

Those include Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Bonnen allies who have, until this year, enjoyed Sullivan's support and favor. The 86th legislative session this year wasn't much to Sullivan's liking, with a focus on school finance and property taxes that resulted in higher state spending on schools and no real guarantee that property taxes will fall. He was irked, and said so, that the Legislature didn't ban cities and counties and other local governments from hiring lobbyists to help argue for them in Austin.

According to the hearsay accounts, that legislation was a prominent topic of the Bonnen-Sullivan-Burrows gabfest in June; the 10 Republicans allegedly targeted for replacement were among the Republicans who voted against that lobbying ban.

When Sullivan published his account in July, revealing that there was a meeting and adding his report on what was said there, he was languishing: The session hadn't gone his way, his allies had become, in some measure, his foes, and the three state officials who led the way were being heralded as champions of good Republican government.

If that's a little much, try this: Those three officials were happy with the results and set to brag about it.

After Sullivan added that he had a recording of the meeting and began his private listening sessions, bad news fouled that sunny climate. Bonnen said Sullivan should make the recording public. Abbott as well. Patrick joined them. The Texas Department of Public Safety, at the urging of the House General Investigating Committee, began an official inquiry that is still underway. The political cloudburst might not be getting much attention outside of the Texas Capitol complex, but on the inside, it has been the prevailing weather for months.

In emailing supporters his plan to release the recording next week, Sullivan even used a Dan Patrick quote from Mark Davis' radio show in Dallas-Fort Worth.

"I don't buy this ‘I don't want to hurt the Republican Party by not putting out the tape.' This drip-drip-drip is hurting," Patrick told Davis. He and Sullivan sparred via Twitter, too.

"BTW, release the tape," Patrick tweeted at Sullivan. “You are destroying our party.”

Sullivan replied: "What's actually destroying the GOP is moral cowardice in which elected officials are unwilling to address the unethical behavior of other politicians."

Whatever condition that relationship is in, Sullivan said Thursday he'll release his only real piece of evidence next week — presumably uncut and unfiltered.

The timing is interesting. Sullivan says he'll release the recording next week. Next week is also when the House Republican Caucus is meeting in Austin for the first time since members learned of the June meeting — and of Sullivan's recording of it.

They and the rest of us will have heard the recording by the time they meet. And we'll finally have a way to figure out who's been telling the truth, who's been lying and what the members of the Texas House are going to do about it.

This piece was originally published in The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.