By Tim Talley
OKLAHOMA CITY — The co-founder of the Sooner Tea Party was charged Tuesday with blackmail and violation of Oklahoma's computer crime act in connection to a threatening email he allegedly sent to a state senator about legislation favored by conservative tea party supporters.
Al Gerhart, 54, of Oklahoma City, was charged in Oklahoma County District Court on the same day that the State Bureau of Investigation gave its report to prosecutors about an email received by Sen. Cliff Branan, R-Oklahoma City. The charges carry maximum penalties of up to five years in prison.
Gerhart admitted that he sent an email to Branan, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, "that was intended to threaten and intimidate him," according to an affidavit of probable cause filed in the case.
The email involved a bill 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, according to court documents. "We will dig into your past, yoru (sic) family, your associates, and once we start on you there will be no end to it."
The email was opened and read by Branan's executive assistant on March 27, who was made uncomfortable by its "threatening tone," the affidavit states. She then left a copy of the email on Branan's desk.
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."
Gerhart defended the email during an April 2 news conference, where he suggested the OSBI investigation was launched because of a vague indiscretion in Branan's past. Gerhart claimed to have sent similar emails to legislators before and said he would do so again because he believes they are effective.
"Political advocacy is not blackmail," he said at the time. "We don't want anything from these politicians except they follow the public good."
Gerhart did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment Tuesday. Court records do not indicate whether Gerhart has an attorney.
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.