Texas House Speaker Traded Press Passes for Party Vendetta

(CN) – Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen announced Tuesday he will not seek re-election in 2020, bowing to calls to resign from his fellow GOP lawmakers after a conservative operative released a secret recording that may lead to criminal charges against Bonnen.

The Texas Capitol building in Austin.

In his first term as speaker this year, Bonnen won praise from Democrats and Republicans for helping push through school finance and property tax reform, and he ended the 2019 legislative session with a call for unity among the Texas GOP’s conservative and moderate members.

With all 150 members of the Texas House of Representatives up for re-election in 2020, Bonnen said in May he would punish Republican lawmakers who campaigned against each other, a threat that carried some weight because the speaker assigns members to legislative committees and chairmanships.

But the peacemaker image Bonnen had cultivated was torn to shreds when Michael Quinn Sullivan published a blog post claiming that Bonnen, in a meeting at the state capitol in Austin, had offered House credentials to Sullivan’s media outlet Texas Scorecard for the 2021 legislative session if it helped him “go after” 10 Republican lawmakers in the 2020 primary elections.

Bonnen at first denied the allegations, but Sullivan’s release of the full recording last week confirmed his account of what Bonnen had said in the meeting.

Sullivan is the founder of Empower Texans, a Tea Party-aligned group that in addition to Texas Scorecard operates a political action committee, which spends millions backing conservative candidates for the Texas Legislature.

Sullivan chastised Bonnen on Tuesday and called on Governor Greg Abbott to call a special session so legislators can immediately appoint a new speaker of the House.

“Bonnen could have behaved ethically from the start in his dealings with his fellow lawmakers, with me, and with the Texas public,” Sullivan said in a statement. “He could have recanted his unethical offer privately when given the opportunity. He instead chose lies, deceit, dishonor, and – ultimately – ruin.”

Bonnen, 47, has represented Brazoria and Matagorda counties, which are on the Gulf of Mexico and considered part of Greater Houston, for more than 20 years in the Texas House.

At the urging of the Texas House General Investigating Committee, the Texas Rangers launched a criminal probe into Bonnen in August because it is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine to make or authorize a political contribution inside the capitol.

Bonnen’s critics say he criminally violated the Texas Elections Code by offering public benefits, in the form of media credentials, in a scheme to support the election or defeat of a candidate for public office.

His decision not to seek reelection will leave him more time for his day job, CEO of Heritage Bank in Pearland, a Houston suburb.

“After much prayer, consultation, and thoughtful consideration with my family, it is clear that I can no longer seek reelection as state representative of District 25, and subsequently, as speaker of the House,” Bonnen said in a statement Tuesday, which included a list of 43 House Republicans who had asked him to resign.

Despite the abrupt end to his legislative career, Bonnen said it was an honor to serve in the Texas Legislature.

“Aside from the blessings of my wife and two sons, there has been no greater or more rewarding accomplishment in my life than serving all of you. I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to all of you for putting your trust in me for the past 23 years. I am looking forward to the many new adventures God has in store for me and my family as we embark on a new chapter,” he said.

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