MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

January 10, 2014

Trial of Sooner Tea Party co-founder postponed


— OKLAHOMA CITY (AP)  — An Oklahoma County judge Friday postponed the blackmail and computer crimes trial of the co-founder of the Sooner Tea Party.

Jury selection was scheduled to begin Monday for the trial of Al Gerhart, 55, who was charged in April in connection with a threatening email he allegedly sent to a state senator about legislation favored by his group, which supports conservative political candidates and causes.

District Judge Ray Elliott granted a motion by Gerhart’s defense attorneys to postpone the trial and set May 5 as the new trial date.

Gerhart has pleaded not guilty to the charges, which carry penalties of up to five years in prison.

Prosecutors filed charges after the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation gave them a report of its investigation of an email received by Sen. Cliff Branan, R-Oklahoma City.

Gerhart has acknowledged that he sent an email to Branan, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, on March 26. An affidavit of probable cause that was filed in the case says the email to Branan “was intended to threaten and intimidate him.”

The email involved a bill 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 House-passed 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, your family, your associates, and once we start on you there will be no end to it.”

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.

Branan testified at a preliminary hearing in September that he was anxious after reading the email and felt threatened.

“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.”

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 attacked those local provisions, seeing them as a U.N. attempt to influence American affairs.