OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — An Oklahoma County judge Friday ordered the co-founder of the Sooner Tea Party to be tried on felony blackmail and computer crimes charges for sending an email to a state senator who testified he felt threatened by its tone.
Special Judge Susan Johnson ruled there is probable cause that Al Gerhart, 55, of Oklahoma City, committed the crimes when he sent an email prosecutors allege was intended to intimidate Republican Sen. Cliff Branan of Oklahoma City, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee. Johnson rejected defense arguments that the email was political speech that is protected by the First Amendment.
“Your First Amendment rights are in trouble, not just mine,” Gerhart told reporters following a preliminary hearing where prosecutors presented their evidence.
Gerhart pleaded not guilty. Johnson ordered Gerhart to report to District Judge Ray Elliott for a pre-trial conference on Sept. 18.
Gerhart has acknowledged that he sent an email to Branan on March 26 urging him to schedule a hearing in his committee on a bill favored by conservatives that would have prohibited state organizations from following a United Nations plan that helps 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” 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 demands 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. “We will dig into your past, your family, your associates, and once we start on you there will be no end to it.”
Branan testified during the preliminary hearing 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. He said he took a copy of the email home to show his wife and discussed it with their two children before turning it over to law enforcement officials.
“He was threatening to say or do anything about me or to me,” he said.
Tommy Johnson, an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation agent, said Branan told him Gerhart was in a “Rolodex of crazy people” and that an unstable person might do something violent.
“I definitely felt threatened,” Branan testified.
Gerhart’s attorney, Brady Henderson, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, argued there was insufficient evidence to support the charges and that the email was merely political speech that was protected by the First Amendment.
“This was entirely in the political realm,” Henderson said.
But First Assistant District Attorney Scott Rowland said the email’s threatening tone amounts to blackmail that is not protected by the First Amendment.
“He has gone beyond the pale of First Amendment protection,” Rowland said.