The co-founder of the Sooner Tea Party says it was constitutionally protected political speech. Oklahoma County prosecutors say it was blackmail.
It will be up to a 12-member jury to decide whether Sooner Tea Party co-founder Al Gerhart committed a crime when he sent an email to a state senator who has said he felt threatened by its tone.
Jury selection begins Monday in Oklahoma County District Court for Gerhart’s trial on felony blackmail and computer crimes charges that were filed in April 2013. Gerhart has pleaded not guilty to the charges, which carry penalties of up to five years in prison.
Gerhart has acknowledged he sent an email to Sen. Cliff Branan, R-Oklahoma City, chairman of the Senate Energy, Telecommunication and Environment Committee, on March 26, 2013, urging him to schedule a hearing on legislation favored by his conservative group.
The email involved a House-passed measure that would have prohibited state organizations from following a United Nations plan to help cities and countries become more environmentally sustainable. Branan refused to give the bill a hearing, saying the legislation was based on a “fringe conspiracy” alleging that the U.N. wanted to use its Agenda 21 plan to encroach on the private property rights of Americans.
Among other things, the email demanded that Branan give the measure a hearing, “or I will make sure you regret not doing it.”
“I will make you the laughing stock of the Senate if I don’t hear that this bill will be heard and passed,” the email said, according to court documents. “We will dig into your past, yoru family, your associates, and once we start on you there will be no end to it.”
Gerhart, 55, defended the email after the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation launched an investigation. Gerhart said he had sent similar emails to legislators before and would continue to send emails because he believes they are effective.
“Political advocacy is not blackmail,” he said. “We don’t want anything from these politicians except they follow the public good.”
But an affidavit of probable cause that was filed in the case says the email to Branan “was intended to threaten and intimidate him.”
Branan testified at a preliminary hearing in September that he was anxious after reading the email and felt threatened. He is expected to testify again at Gerhart’s trial.
“It just kind of got the hair up on the back of my neck,” the senator said. “It was not your normal email. He had woven family into the email. My two young children are out of bounds.”
Branan said he was not inclined to consider the measure mentioned in the email and felt it was an attempt to force him to do something against his will. The charge alleges the email was intended to compel Branan “to do an act against his will” by threatening to expose information “which would subject such person to the ridicule or contempt of society.”
“He was threatening to say or do anything about me or to me,” he said. “I definitely felt threatened.”
Defense attorneys have argued there was insufficient evidence to support the charges and that the email was merely political speech that was protected by the First Amendment.
But prosecutors argue that the email’s threatening tone amounts to blackmail and is “beyond the pale of First Amendment protection.”
Agenda 21 was the product of a 1992 U.N. conference in Brazil that aimed to encourage environmentally friendly and sustainable practices around the world. It includes suggestions from the international level down to cities and towns.
Many conservatives have latched onto those local provisions, seeing them as a U.N. attempt to influence American affairs.