Secret Recording Heats Up Texas Politics

AUSTIN (CN) — The Texas Democratic Party sued a conservative activist Thursday, demanding a recording of a meeting he had with Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen in which Bonnen allegedly made a quid pro quo offer, in violation of the Texas Election Code.

The Texas state Capitol in Austin.

Defendant Michael Quinn Sullivan secretly recorded a meeting he had with Bonnen, and Bonnen’s top lieutenant, Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, on June 12 at the Texas Capitol in Austin.

Sullivan is the founder of Empower Texans, a Tea Party-aligned group that operates a political action committee, which spends millions backing “conservative, reform-minded” candidates for the Texas Legislature, and runs a media outlet called Texas Scorecard, according to its website.

It also publishes a “Fiscal Responsibility Index” in which it rates Texas state lawmakers on how “pro-taxpayer” they are.

Sullivan unleashed a firestorm and imperiled Bonnen’s hopes of retaining the speaker’s gavel when he claimed in a July 25 blog post Bonnen had offered House media credentials to Texas Scorecard for the 2021 legislative session, credentials that had been repeatedly denied to it, if it helped him “go after” 10 Republican lawmakers in the 2020 primary elections.

Sullivan claims in the blog post that Burrows, chair of the Texas House Republican caucus, read him a list of the names of the 10 targeted legislators in the meeting.

But the Texas Democratic Party says in its lawsuit in Travis County Court that Bonnen and Burrows also asked Sullivan to target Democratic lawmakers, including state Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos.

Ramos, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, represents the Dallas suburb Richardson.

Sullivan has refused to publicly release the recording, but has let a small group of Republican lawmakers listen to it, according to the Dallas Morning News.

The Democrats say in their lawsuit they learned that Ramos and other Democratic lawmakers had also been targeted from public reports of six people who have listened to the recording, citing a Morning News article.

The Democrats claim the meeting, and any deals Bonnen, Burrows and Sullivan made, amounted to their forming an illegal unregistered political action committee.

“None of this activity is permitted by law to occur in the Capitol Building,” the complaints states.

It continues: “Moreover, offering the granting of public benefits in a scheme to support the election or defeat of a candidate for public office, as was reportedly done here, is also illegal under state law and itself is a campaign finance law violation.”

The complaint, which names only Sullivan and an “Unknown Named Political Action Committee” as defendants, claims Sullivan has violated nine restrictions on campaign expenditures and political contributions in the Texas Election Code.

Sullivan wrote on Twitter that Texas Democrats are trying to victimize him with a frivolous lawsuit. “Look forward to kicking Donkey butt in court,” he wrote.

Empower Texans did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

Bonnen has denied giving Sullivan a political hit list and called for him to release the full recording to the public.

The Democrats seek a declaration the activities described in the recording violate state law, an injunction to stop any planned campaign finance violations and more than $100,000 in damages.

They are represented by Chad Dunn with the Austin firm Brazil & Dunn.

Bonnen hails from Angleton, the seat of Brazoria County. Many of its population of 19,500 make their living working in refineries and chemical plants.

Bonnen won widespread praise from both sides of the aisle for his leadership as Texas House speaker in the 2019 session, helping pass school finance and property tax reform legislation, and steering clear of divisive issues such as transgender rights and abortion.

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