OKLAHOMA CITY — A judge has refused to dismiss blackmail charges filed against the co-founder of the Sooner Tea Party who's accused of sending a threatening email to a state lawmaker.
Thursday's ruling clears the way for Al Gerhart to go to trial in January on charges of blackmail and violating the Oklahoma Computer Crimes Act. Prosecutors allege that Gerhart sent an email with the intent to intimidate Republican Sen. Cliff Branan of Oklahoma City, who is chairman of the Senate Energy Committee.
Oklahoma County District Judge Ray Elliott rejected a request from Gerhart's attorneys to dismiss the charges. The defense argues that Gerhart's email was political speech protected by the First Amendment.
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.
Misspelling one word, Gerhart wrote: "Branan, Get that bill heard 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. We will dig into your past, yoru family, your associates and once we start on you there will be no end to it. This is a promise."
Gerhart's attorneys argued that part of the state's blackmail law is overbroad.
"To express anger, dissatisfaction or frustration with a public official is legal," defense attorneys wrote in a legal brief. "To tell a public official how he should do his job is legal. To attempt to persuade and even verbally pressure a public official is legal. To express an ultimatum to a public official is legal. To 'dig up dirt' on a public official is legal. To publicly expose said dirt is legal."
Prosecutors countered that Gerhart is free to criticize public figures but he cannot threaten to expose negative information to control a senator's actions.
"Far from contributing to healthy, public discourse, using such threats to control legislation and legislators is every bit as corrupting to the body politic as bribes in the form of money," prosecutors told the judge in a legal brief.
A jury trial is set for Jan. 13.
AP Source: The Oklahoman