Sooner Tea Party leader Al Gerhart was found guilty Wednesday night of blackmailing a state senator.
Gerhart, an Oklahoma City carpenter, did not get any prison time. Jurors decided a $1,000 fine should be the only punishment for the felony offense.
“The jury held him accountable,” prosecutor Scott Rowland said afterward. “They obviously worked very hard to make the punishment fit the crime. I think they got it right. ... I suspect the jury believes this will be an appropriate deterrent to him and others.”
Gerhart was convicted of blackmail for sending Sen. Cliff Branan an email last year demanding passage of a bill in a Senate committee.
Gerhart also was found guilty of violating the Oklahoma Computer Crimes Act for using a computer to accomplish the blackmail. Jurors chose no fine and no prison time on the second felony offense.
Gerhart, 55, faced up to 10 years in prison and $15,000 in fines on the two felonies. He turned down a plea deal before trial that would have given him unsupervised probation for a year and no felony convictions.
A dejected Gerhart said the verdicts against him “just chills free speech.”
“Who is going to want to risk holding a politician accountable at this point?” he said. “I lost a thousand dollars. I became a felon. I lost my voting rights. I lost my gun rights. I’m probably getting off easy compared to the rest of society, though.”
He said he will appeal.
The jury of eight women and four men deliberated almost eight hours Wednesday at the Oklahoma County Courthouse.
“This is crazy,” defense attorney Kevin Adams told jurors in closing arguments Wednesday morning. “This is what we do in America. We have the right to free speech.”
The attorney told jurors the case has lots of implications for every citizen’s rights.
Rowland, the first assistant district attorney, countered that freedom of speech does not protect blackmail.
“He tried to hijack the political process. He tried to cheat,” the prosecutor said in his closing arguments. “It corrupts the process. That’s why this case is important.”
Rowland told jurors “we can’t let people like Al Gerhart” force legislators to pass laws because they fear him. He said Gerhart wasn’t content to be one of hundreds of voices the senate chairman heard and that he wanted to be the only voice.
Gerhart admitted sending the email to Branan on March 26, 2013, demanding the passage in a Senate committee of a House bill involving a United Nations plan.
Branan, R-Oklahoma City, is chairman of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee.
“I know evil exists,” Branan testified Tuesday about the email. “It really scared me....He definitely was wanting me to do something I did not want to do.”
The state House of Representatives already had passed the bill, but it died when the Senate Energy committee did not consider it. Branan said the bill was a solution to a problem that did not exist. He said he already had refused to let four similar Senate bills be heard.
In the email, 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 did not testify but jurors did see a recording of his April 2013 news conference about the email.
He said in the news conference that when he mentioned “family” in the email he was not meaning the senator’s kids.
Branan is married with two teenage children. The senator on Tuesday called Gerhart a bully for threatening his family.
Branan has been a senator since November 2002 and is not running this year for re-election because of term limits. He instead is running for a seat on the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.
Defense attorneys contended that Branan was not really upset by the email but pushed for charges against Gerhart to silence a political opponent.