AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Texas House speaker offered lawmakers a vague apology Tuesday for “embarrassing” and “hurtful” things he said on a secretly-recorded conversation with a hardline conservative activist in a scandal that has rocked state Republicans.
The apology from first-term Speaker Dennis Bonnen didn’t detail what was said, and it notably avoids mention of an alleged “hit list” of Republican lawmakers to target in the upcoming 2020 primary.
Activist Michael Quinn Sullivan has said he recorded his June meeting with Bonnen, and that it includes an offer from the speaker to give the media arm of Sullivan’s Empower Texans lobbying group press credentials to the House chamber if Empower Texans would attack a specific group of Republicans in the primary.
Bonnen previously denied a target list of lawmakers, but didn’t address it in Tuesday’s note.
“I said terrible things that are embarrassing to the members, to the House, and to me personally,” Bonnen said in the email. “You know me well enough to know I say things with no filter.”
Bonnen also asked for “forgiveness” and said, “I hope to rebuild your trust.”
The scandal is dragging into its third week and has rocked Bonnen’s tenure as leader of the Republican-majority House as the GOP heading into the critical 2020 elections. Republicans have held the 150-member state House since 2003, but Democrats have shrunk the GOP majority to 16 seats and can re-take control if they flip just nine in 2020.
Even if they can’t win a majority, Republican distrust in Bonnen could give Democrats a valuable bargaining chip to elect a new speaker in the nation’s most populous conservative state.
Bonnen’s apology note renewed his call for Sullivan to release the recording. Sullivan has so far refused and played it for only a handful of Republican lawmakers or consultants who are political allies.
“At what point will he apologize for lying to the public and his #Txlege colleagues?” Sullivan responded in a tweet. “When will he apologize to me for putting me in the position of hearing his unethical proposal?”
Despite Republican control of the Legislature, Sullivan’s group has long attacked GOP lawmakers it deems not conservative enough on spending, gun rights, abortion and other issues. Sullivan and Bonnen were sharply critical of each other earlier this year and news of the June meeting surprised many Republicans.
Empower Texans is bankrolled by wealthy West Texas businessman Tim Dunn and is best known for ranking lawmakers on a conservative scorecard and pumping millions into legislative campaigns, often in attempts to oust moderate Republican incumbents.
Bonnen had promised lawmakers he would work to protect incumbent Republicans in the upcoming primaries and the general election. In 2021, state lawmakers will be tasked with redrawing political voting maps.
‘Republican Rep. Travis Clardy, who ran against Bonnen for speaker, has said he listened to Sullivan’s recording and that it backs up the claim of a political hit list, which included him. He called the conversation “repugnant.”