The Texas State Troopers Association (TSTA) alleges Attorney General Greg Abbott is trying to change its leadership and limit its right to choose counsel.

On Nov. 8, self-described voluntary labor organization TSTA and four other plaintiffs sued Abbott in his official capacity, alleging violation of their constitutional rights to assembly and equal protection and due process, specifically, their right to choose counsel. The plaintiffs also allege the A.G. engaged in prior restraint of their protected rights of speech and association.

Among the plaintiffs is the TSTA’s founder and president, Lee Johnson, a lawyer; original members of the TSTA board of directors Anne Johnson and Herschel Henderson; and the group’s executive director, Claude Hart.

The TSTA solicits donations from the public as a nonprofit organization. The A.G. enforces state laws that govern nonprofits.

After the TSTA provided financial information requested by the A.G., Abbott attempted enforcement actions against the plaintiffs, they allege in their complaint. Abbott proposed that, to avoid a lawsuit, the TSTA needed to sign an agreement, all versions of which would have included a final judgment barring all four named individual plaintiffs from leadership positions, the plaintiffs claim.

In some versions of the proposed agreements, the final judgment would have limited the TSTA right to choose Johnson as counsel; in others, it would have barred the group from choosing Don Dickson and the Parker Law Firm as counsel, the plaintiffs allege.

Former state Sen. Carl Parker, D-Port Arthur, founded The Parker Law Firm, where he said Dickson works as a staff lawyer. Although the A.G. initially proposed restricting the TSTA from hiring his firm and Dickson, Parker said, in the A.G.’s final proposed agreement with the group, Abbott dropped his request to limit the TSTA from hiring his firm and Dickson.

Parker said he and Dickson continue to represent the TSTA and they have been to court “numerous times on behalf of highway patrolmen” and “have represented countless, countless troopers in administrative hearings concerning their jobs.” Also, “over the years,” he said, “we have made 100 appearances for the TSTA before legislative committees.”

Parker said the A.G. has been misguided in his efforts to engage in enforcement activity against the TSTA, which is an organization that “is not violating any law.”

According to the TSTA complaint, the A.G. in his final proposed agreement did seek to have the group restricted from relying on Johnson as counsel.

Seeking Injunction

The complaint in Texas State Troopers Association v. Abbott, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, seeks declaratory relief and an injunction barring the A.G. from violating the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights, plus attorney fees.

According to a statement emailed by Lauren Bean, a spokeswoman from the A.G.’s office, “The TSTA’s own 2012 IRS filings reveal that the organization raised $3.25 million in the name of State Troopers—but spent nearly $2.5 million on fundraising fees and $75,000 on lobbyists, while only devoting about $35,000 on ‘membership’ benefits. That spending became an issue for the Attorney General’s Office because we are charged with enforcing state laws that govern non-profit organizations and protect the generous Texans who want to financially support organizations that legitimately benefit the law enforcement community. The TSTA’s lawsuit is nothing more than a frivolous attempt to prevent the Attorney General’s Office from enforcing the law …”

Errol Copilevitz of Copilevitz & Canter in Kansas City, Mo., represents the TSTA and the other plaintiffs. He said federal court is the best place to protect his clients’ constitutional rights.

Gerry Morris of the Law Office of E.G. Morris in Austin serves as local counsel for TSTA. He did not return a call seeking comment. Johnson referred all questions about the litigation to Copilevitz.

In the complaint, the TSTA states that “high fundraising fees alone are not enough to constitute, nor do they provide any reasonable justification for denying TSTA equal protection and due process.”