Seeking to resolve weeks-long tension over a meeting with a conservative activist, Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen sent an email to House members Tuesday apologizing for saying “terrible things that are embarrassing” during the conversation.
“I was stupid to take a meeting with an individual who has worked hard to divide our House,” said Bonnen, a Republican from Lake Jackson, in the email, referring to Michael Quinn Sullivan. “It was a mistake.”
Bonnen did not address the most serious allegation from the meeting: that he and a Republican lieutenant offered to give media credentials to writers for a publication affiliated with Sullivan's Empower Texans in exchange for the group backing primary opponents to 10 Republican House members. Bonnen had said at the end of the legislative session in May that he would support all Republicans' reelection bids and urged his colleagues to do the same.
Sullivan described the June 12 meeting in a blog post last month, which included details about the “backroom offer” and the names of the lawmakers Sullivan said Bonnen asked him to target.
Bonnen denied the accusation in a letter to Sullivan on June 27 and he denied it again after Sullivan published his description of the meeting.
Sullivan then revealed that he had secretly made an audio recording of the meeting and he threatened to release it if Bonnen did not correct the record. He has yet to release the recording publicly, but he has invited GOP lawmakers to listen to it.
Four House members who listened to the recording have told the American-Statesman that Sullivan’s account of the meeting is accurate.
In Tuesday’s email, Bonnen opened with an apology and said he regretted what he said during the meeting.
“I said terrible things that are embarrassing to the members, to the House, and to me personally,” he wrote. “You know me well enough to know I say things with no filter. That's not an excuse for the hurtful things I said or the discussion that was had.”
In the email, Bonnen reiterated his earlier call for Sullivan to release the recording of the meeting so that “the House is no longer held hostage, and we can begin to heal.”
“I have reached out to many of you, and I want to visit with all of you,” he wrote. “I hope I have the chance to apologize to you personally. I am truly sorry from the bottom of my heart. I ask for your forgiveness, and I hope to rebuild your trust.”
Lawmakers had mixed reactions to Bonnen’s email.
Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, said called his response “a strong, much-needed statement.”
“Like me, & all of us, Dennis is imperfect,” Leach wrote in a tweet. “But this statement exhibits a refreshing humility that admits missteps & seeks to make rebuild the trust that has been broken. A great step forward for him & the Texas House.”
But Rep. Jonathan Stickland, a close ally of Empower Texans' who is not seeking reelection in 2020, said Bonnen's apology wasn't enough. Stickland said he listened to Sullivan's recording last week.
"The apology Bonnen issued does not address any of the major concerns people should have about this situation," he said. "He lied and he didn't apologize for lying. He apologized for saying mean things about members."
Carrollton Rep. Michelle Beckley — one of two Democrats Bonnen offered “amusing (if slightly vulgar) comments" about during the meeting, according to Sullivan — told The Dallas Morning News that she accepted Bonnen’s apology and was ready to move on.
“He is a first-time speaker, first and only,” she said. “I don't think he'll be reelected. He caused this himself. He should know better.”
Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, one of the 10 members that Sullivan said Bonnen wanted to see defeated, said Tuesday in a statement issued after Bonnen's apology that he had listened to the recording and that "it was very apparent that our speaker and caucus chairman did engage in targeting specific members of the Republican caucus."
"I find this reckless ambition to be absolutely disgusting," Parker said. "The disparaging commentary that was also heard was the epitome of disrespect and a clear attack on the values of the Republican Party and the integrity we have established in the Texas House."
Parker didn't address Bonnen's apology, but called on House Republicans to investigate Bonnen's actions.