Texas House Speaker Won’t Face Charges in Tape Scandal

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, right, with Governor Greg Abbott, left, speaks at a news conference on May 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

ANGLETON, Texas (CN) – A district attorney declined Thursday to criminally charge the speaker of the Texas House over a secret recording that revealed he offered a conservative activist press credentials in exchange for attacks on fellow Republican lawmakers he deemed too moderate.

Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne declined to charge Dennis Bonnen, 47, of Angleton, one week after Michael Quinn Sullivan, head of advocacy group Empower Texas, released the hour-long recording of a conversation in which Bonnen is heard offering Sullivan media access to the House floor in exchange for his group targeting 10 Republicans in their 2020 reelection campaigns.

Bonnen apparently wanted to go after those moderate GOP lawmakers because they slowed down the Legislature’s conservative agenda, saying in the recording that they “don’t want to help with anything.”

Sullivan, whose hardline conservative organization runs the news outlet Texas Scorecard, released the recording after months of speculation about the meeting. He has said he recorded the conversation to protect himself.

Critics claim Bonnen’s actions amount to soliciting a bribe in exchange for public benefits. The Texas Rangers began their investigation in August into whether a political contribution was made or authorized in the Texas Capitol, a misdemeanor punishable up to a year in state prison and a $4,000 fine.

Bipartisan calls for Bonnen’s resignation have steadily grown since the existence of the recording was disclosed in the summer. Bonnen is heard calling one Democrat legislator a “piece of shit” and another one a “vile” person. He is also heard insulting and mocking the leaders of Texas’ cities and counties.

“Any mayor or county judge that is dumbass enough to come meet with me,” Bonnen said during the meeting, “I told them with great clarity, my goal is for this to be the worst session in the history of the Legislature for cities and counties.”

Bonnen bowed to the pressure Tuesday when he announced he will not seek reelection, after several apologies and a flurry of messages on Twitter the night before explaining his comments failed to appease his detractors.

Yenne, a Republican, pulled no punches in calling Bonnen’s comments “offensive,” in spite of not pressing charges. She said his disdain for cities and counties and intent to hurt them during the next legislative session are “disappointing and disturbing.”

She said Bonnen’s statements are “repugnant” and “lacking in character and integrity, demeaning to other human beings” who place their confidence in him, but his actions do not warrant a criminal prosecution.

Bonnen’s spokeswoman, Cait Meisenheimer, said Yenne’s announcement “deflates” Sullivan’s “entire reason for going public” with the recording in July. She claims the incident “ultimately ended with the defamation of a man’s quarter-century in public service,” citing Bonnen’s cooperation with investigators.

“Unfortunately, we now live in a political climate where one is guilty until proven innocent, and not only has that thrown the ability of Republicans to hold onto our House majority in jeopardy, it sets a dangerous precedent moving forward,” Meisenheimer said in a written statement. “He appreciates the Rangers’ thorough examination and the DA’s confirmation of no wrongdoing. While justice prevailed today, unfortunately, the damage has been done.”

Sullivan disagreed, accusing Bonnen of being unethical after the district attorney’s announcement.

“Texans should ask themselves why men like @realDonaldTrump, Tom Delay, @SecretaryPerry, & @KenPaxtonTX get indicted for little or nothing, but unethical guys like @RepDennisBonnen don’t,” Sullivan tweeted. “The answer is simple: the criminal justice system is highly political and often illegitimate.”

Meisenheimer quickly fired back on Twitter.

“So are you saying you find the Texas Rangers & Brazoria County DA to be highly political and illegitimate? Interesting take,” she responded. “Although I’m not surprised, given your propensity to attack others’ character & gaslight people into questioning reality when you don’t get your way.”

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