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Texas This Week: The dilemma with Texas Speaker Dennis Bonnen

This week, the Texas Rangers Public Integrity Unit agreed to open an investigation into a conversation the Texas speaker had with the CEO of Empower Texans.

AUSTIN, Texas —

Three things to know in Texas politics

Hundreds of mourners gathered at a public memorial for the victims of the El Paso massacre on Wednesday, including Governor Greg Abbott. Earlier that morning the governor announced he's forming a Domestic Terrorism Task Force. The panel of experts will come up with strategies to protect Texans and, according to the governor, "root out the extremist ideologies that fuel hatred and violence in our state."

The Texas Education Agency released A through F report cards for school districts this week and, for the first time, each campus got a grade. Eight Austin ISD schools got an F along with one Round Rock ISD campus. 

The Texas Rangers Public Integrity Unit will investigate a meeting between Texas Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen and Michael Sullivan, CEO of the conservative group Empower Texans. The Rangers are investigating at the request of the House General Investigating Committee. They met this week and talked about the allegations against the speaker behind closed doors.

RELATED: Texas Rangers confirm investigation into Speaker Dennis Bonnen's conversation

Interview with James Barragan, Dallas Morning News

Dallas Morning News statehouse reporter James Barragan has been following the story of Bonnen's meeting with Sullivan since the story broke. He sat down with political anchor Ashley Goudeau to discuss what happened and what it could mean for the Texas House of Representatives.

Ashley Goudeau: Let's talk a little bit about what's going on with Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen. This has been an ongoing situation, if you will. Tell us how it all started.

James Barragan: "The situation really started on June 12th when Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen and the Republican Caucus chairman Dustin Burrows had a sort of secretive meeting with a political conservative activist named Michael Quinn Sullivan. And at that June 12th meeting in Bonnen's Capitol office, it's alleged that there was a quid pro quo, meaning that Bonnen offered Michael Quinn Sullivan, who's a big critic of Bonnen and a lot of GOP leaders, that he was offered media credentials for his website, which has been denied media credentials for the last couple of years, in exchange for them going easy on the legislators after this last session – meaning, refraining from criticizing and then also targeting a list of 10 fellow Republicans that they should go after in next year's primaries. So that kind of blew up the scandal, that went public in late July and has really been at the top of the headlines for the last three weeks in state politics."

Goudeau: When this first came out, initially Speaker of the House Bonnen said, 'No, no, no, that's not how it went. There was no list provided. That's not true.' And then what happened?

Barragan: "Yeah, it's been a little bit of a spectacle because Dennis Bonnen really hasn't come out publicly and explained what happened. For the first couple of days, he was behind closed doors, he sent out private emails to the Republican Caucus saying, denying that he had provided a list and sort of saying, you know, 'I made a mistake with having this meeting, but all I wanted to do was protect my fellow Republicans.' That was a private message that he sent to the Republican Caucus on Friday when the news broke. He then publicly denied, four days later, that he had ever provided a list in a prepared statement. And he's never actually come out in front of the news media and held a press conference, answered any real questions about it, so there's still a lot of doubts. But then even after that, after he denied that he had provided a list, Sullivan then came out and said, 'Hey, guess what? I secretly recorded the meeting.' And so that's kind of opened up another can of worms because now lawmakers and conservative activists and party officials have slowly started listening to the tape. There allegedly is some pretty damning comments there by Bonnen about Democratic and Republican lawmakers. He calls one a dumb freshman, he calls another woman lawmaker vile, another one awful and says that one Houston Democrat makes his skin crawl. So pretty damning stuff, and there's still more to come. We still have not gotten the audio recording and we don't know when that will be made public. I think that's one of the big questions of when will this recording that some people have listened to, when will it be made public."

Goudeau: We had someone on the newscast earlier this week who had heard the tape, the chairman of the Travis County GOP Matt Mackowiak. And he says, no a list was given what Sullivan says was true. So what does this really mean in terms of the trust members have for Speaker Bonnen?

Barragan: "I think that's exactly the question. There's a question about whether there was legal impropriety and now, as you know, the Texas Rangers are now investigating what happened at this meeting and whether there's any actual legal implications that may happen to Speaker Bonnen and to Chairman Burrows. But the real question for now is the political question. You know, if people can't trust you, can you be speaker of the House again and can you be the Republican Caucus chairman again? Dennis Bonnen said that he had not provided a list. He said that publicly. Well now we're hearing from people who've heard the recording and they're saying he did provide a list. So that, if true, is a flat out lie that he gave publicly and Republican lawmakers are upset about that. They're rightfully calling for an investigation and they're calling for answers. And I think now the speaker has finally apologized for saying 'terrible things' on that recording, but I don't think he's apologized for saying it's OK to target these 10 Republicans. And I think people are still upset about that. So the political implications of what happens afterwards is really the big question for now, but then there's also these legal implications with this Texas Rangers investigation and there's a lawsuit by the Democratic Party as well."

Goudeau: Right, and so let's talk about some of those legal implications. People may think, OK he had a meeting, he made a little deal, that's not technically illegal. But some people see this as campaigning in his state office.

Barragan: "Exactly, and there's a slew of allegations of election law violations that the Democrats put in their lawsuit, including, the ones that I think are the most straightforward, which are you're not allowed to campaign or ask for fundraising in the Capitol, which the meeting was held in Bonnen's Capitol office. And two, they asked for money or exchange for money or asked to exchange money during the fundraising moratorium. So I think those are the two, most clear possible violations, but there's six or seven of them that are in there. It's up to a court to decide whether those are going to stick, and the bribery one is a little bit more difficult to prove because if Sullivan said no to the offer, is it clear that an offer was made? I think those are all questions that will have to come out in the investigations and in the lawsuit. But it's certainly a complicated matter for them. And then the other thing is that the Democrats are going to keep pushing for, you know, whatever they can get out of this lawsuit and the Rangers will keep investigating."

Amidst this fallout, on Friday Representative Dustin Burrows resigned as chair of the House Republican Party Caucus. 

The Last Word

In this week's The Last Word, Ashley weighs in on Austin ISD's new dress code policy.


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