This article has been updated to include comments from additional statewide elected officials.
AUSTIN (Nexstar) — As they criticized Gov. Greg Abbott’s policies for businesses who don’t require face masks during the pandemic, two members Empower Texans, a hardline conservative activist group, also joked about Abbott’s use of a wheelchair.
The profane conversation was released by political news website Quorum Report on Friday. The outlet published approximately three minutes of audio that begin as the pair was finishing up a podcast recording of Texas Scorecard Radio. The podcast featured Empower Texans’ general counsel Tony McDonald and Cary Cheshire, vice president of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, a project of Empower Texans.
It appears that an unedited version of the podcast was published Thursday, then replaced with an edited version Friday. At the conclusion of the unedited version of the podcast, the pair laughed about references they made to Abbott’s use of a wheelchair. He was paralyzed in a 1984 accident.
“I said Abbott ‘wheeled himself out there,'” Cheshire said.
“I’m OK with it,” McDonald responded as they both laughed.
“And then within seconds, you demanded that he ‘stand firm,'” Cheshire said. McDonald chuckled.
“I feel like before there was a switch I could flip to avoid that, and I’m just so frustrated that I’ve flipped it off,” Cheshire is heard saying.
“He’s such a revolting piece of s—,” he continued.
“I have tipped over,” McDonald said. “It’s the substance that really matters but the substance is so magnified by his speaking style. I hate him. I truly hate him.”
The conversation was sparked by Abbott’s comments this week regarding face mask requirements, or lack thereof. Essentially, local governments can’t force individuals to wear masks in public, but they can impose fines on businesses that don’t require their customers to wear masks while on their property.
The expletive-filled venting between Cheshire and McDonald was reminiscent of criticism towards Abbott’s stance on mask-wearing policies. His position has stirred confusion for leaders, business owners and patrons across Texas. Some conservatives have voiced displeasure with Abbott, saying he allowed Democratic leaders of the state’s bigger cities to have too much control.
“It’s like, I have created this riddle for you and you have figured out how to f— your citizens with it— ‘Great job, I’m with you,'” Cheshire said, referring to the Governor’s mask confusion in the unedited recording. “And it’s like, you’re an awful piece of s—.”
McDonald said the Governor has created “a s—-y policy that’s vague because he wanted to avoid accountability.”
Abbott ultimately clarified this week that his executive orders allowed local governments the leeway to require businesses to enforce mask-wearing.
“Well, just like, f—-n’ say it,” McDonald said in the recording. “Don’t clown around. ‘You read between the lines.’ Well, f— you.”
Abbott’s director of communications, John Wittman, called the audio despicable.
“It reveals a lot about an organization’s character and morals that uses profanity to mock a person in a wheelchair, and this audio is disgusting and hate-filled,” Wittman said. “It is sad to think about what else this group may be saying about people behind their backs when they think they aren’t being recorded. Regardless of this despicable tape, the Governor remains keenly focused on containing the spread of COVID-19, while also unifying the state as we celebrate Juneteenth.”
Empower Texans CEO Michael Quinn Sullivan issued a statement confirming the identities of the two people on the recording and said the two staff members were reprimanded.
“I am heartbroken by the language and tone used by Tony McDonald and Cary Cheshire. Both have been suspended from all public activities with the organization immediately, and additional internal actions will be taken. Whether it was a private conversation or not is unimportant; it was wrong and unacceptable. I have already sent a personal apology to Gov. Abbott,” Sullivan said.
This leak comes months after a different controversy involving Empower Texans, a recording and a high-ranking member of the legislature. Sullivan recorded a meeting between House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Ways & Means committee chair Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, last year.
In that meeting, Bonnen broke a public pledge not to protect incumbent Republicans. He also offered media credentials to Empower Texans in exchange for targeting certain House Republicans.
The “quid pro quo” scandal with Bonnen ended up with a House investigation, a public apology from Bonnen and prosecutors finding no criminal wrongdoing by the Angleton Republican. The Speaker decided not to run for re-election after more than two decades in the legislature and only one term wielding the gavel.
The conservative non-profit organization filed a lawsuit over being denied media credentials by the Texas House. A judge dismissed the suit, and the media arm of the organization has remained without access to the House floor. Empower Texans donates millions of dollars to conservatives on the far right, while publicly berating moderates in the Republican party.
Bonnen issued a statement late Friday, saying there’s a political subculture in Texas “whose only priority is getting power for themselves, their financial backers and their small-minded agenda.”
“While I’m sure the scar tissue on my psyche developed while dealing with their ilk will last long past the end of my time as Speaker, I would love for my successor to have the freedom to lead in a climate that is free of this self-serving, hateful mindset and its outsized influence,” Bonnen wrote.
The state’s Lieutenant Governor, Dan Patrick, who granted the group media credentials during the last legislative session, was one of the first state leaders to jump to Abbott’s defense Friday morning, calling the recording “outrageous, vulgar and completely unacceptable.”
Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, defended Abbott Friday afternoon, tweeting, “These comments are abhorrent & completely unacceptable, and I condemn them in the strongest possible terms.”
The state’s senior Senator, John Cornyn, tweeted: “Those individuals are despicable and should be ashamed of themselves, same goes for the horse they rode in on.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said he was “sickened” that Empower Texans staffers “would be so vicious and careless with their words and actions.”
Abbott’s predecessor, former Governor Rick Perry, who recently served as U.S. Energy Secretary, denounced the “degrading remarks.”
“Whether you agree with [Abbott]’s decisions or not, there is no excuse for degrading remarks toward him as a public servant,” Perry tweeted. “This is an example of what is wrong with politics today. We can advocate for conservative policies with civil discourse.”