A co-founder of the Sooner Tea Party was charged Tuesday with blackmail over an email that he admits sending to a state senator.
Al Gerhart, 54, of Oklahoma City, also was charged with violating the Oklahoma Computer Crimes Act.
Both counts are felonies.
Gerhart, a carpenter, denied any wrongdoing after coming under investigation last week. He had not been arrested yet Tuesday evening.
Gerhart sent the email March 26 to Sen. Cliff Branan, promising to make the senator a laughing stock unless the Senate Energy and Environment Committee passed a bill dealing with a United Nations plan.
Branan, R-Oklahoma City, is chairman of the committee. The senator turned the email over to the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.
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 admitted at a news conference at the Capitol last week that he sent the email.
“Political pain and embarrassment will be necessary if the citizens expect to regain control of this Senate down here from the state chamber of commerce and special interests,” he said. “The time for ‘nice' behavior is over with.”
The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation collected a videotape of the April 2 news conference as evidence.
Gerhart could not be reached Tuesday for comment and did not immediately reply to a message left on his phone. Last week, Gerhart claimed his email was constitutionally protected free speech. He also said the investigation of the email was an attempt to harass him because the Sooner Tea Party tactics are effective.
At the news conference, Gerhart told reporters “the scuttlebutt” at the Capitol was that the senator reacted the way he did to the email because the senator was worried the tea party would uncover infidelity.
Branan said last week, “We've been happily married for nearly 18 years. … Nothing like that has ever happened. And I think, candidly, he got me confused with somebody else.”
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater commended Branan for reporting the email.
“I believe he was very courageous in the way he handled this knowing there could be further repercussions to him or to his family,” Prater said Tuesday. “The manner in which Sen. Branan has handled this situation will hopefully prevent this … from happening in the future.”
Branan said Tuesday that once he turned the email over, it was “out of his hands.”
“It's up to a judge or a jury of his peers,” the senator said. “It's not for me to determine what happens next. … Let me … tell you how uncomfortable this is for me and my family. This is not anything that I asked to have thrown in my lap. I trust in our system. It's up for a jury of his peers to really determine.”
A judge Tuesday set bail at $15,000. The judge also said Gerhart must stay at least 1,000 feet away from the senator and the senator's family if he is able to post bail.
Under Oklahoma law, blackmail can involve a written communication that threatens to expose information about someone “which would in any way subject such person to the ridicule or contempt of society.”
Under the law, blackmail occurs if the intent of the communication is “to extort or gain any thing of value from another or to compel another to do an act against his or her will.”
House Bill 1412
Branan's committee never took up House Bill 1412 — the legislation addressing the U.N. plan — so that bill is now dead.
The bill prohibited any city, town or county from adopting or implementing policy recommendations established by the United Nations' Agenda 21 sustainable development action plan. The House passed it 67-17. Supporters claimed the bill would protect the property rights of individual citizens, but Branan called it “a fringe conspiracy issue that is frankly just bad public policy.”