The Woodward News

Local News

May 8, 2014

Sooner Tea Party co-founder convicted of blackmail

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A jury convicted the co-founder of the Sooner Tea Party on Wednesday night of felony blackmail and computer crimes charges, but recommended that he not serve any prison time and that he pay a $1,000 fine.

Al Gerhart, 55, could have been sentenced to up to five years in prison for each of the two counts. Judge Ray Elliott could disregard the jury's recommended punishment for Gerhart at his July 22 sentencing hearing in Oklahoma County District Court, but it's highly unlikely he would do so.

Gerhart admits that he sent an email to state Sen. Cliff Branan urging the Oklahoma City Republican to schedule a hearing on legislation favored by Gerhart's activist conservative political group. Branan, the chairman of the Senate Energy, Telecommunication and Environment Committee, testified Tuesday that he felt threatened by the email that vowed to "dig into your past" and mentioned his family and associates.

The March 26, 2013, email said if Branan's committee didn't take up a bill to prohibit state organizations from following a United Nations plan to help cities and countries become more environmentally sustainable, "I will make sure you regret not doing it."

According to court documents, the email also said, "I will make you the laughing stock of the Senate if I don't hear that this bill will be heard and passed. We will dig into your past, yoru family, your associates, and once we start on you there will be no end to it."

Branan had 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.

Jurors began their deliberations shortly after noon on Wednesday, the third day of the trial, and delivered their verdict eight hours later.

First Assistant District Attorney Scott Rowland said he was "very pleased" with the jury's decision.

"I think they got it right," Rowland said. He said the nature of the white-collar crime probably made jurors reluctant to impose a prison sentence.

"I can understand why they wouldn't want to spend a prison bed on him," Rowland said. "I suspect the jury believes this will be a proper deterrent to him and others."

Gerhart said he believes the verdict "criminalizes free speech."

"The chilling effect on free speech will be enormous," Gerhart said. And although a prison sentence was not recommended, he is still a convicted felon, Gerhart said.

"I've lost my gun rights. I can't vote," he said. He said he plans to appeal his conviction.

 

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