Sooner Tea Party co-founder Al Gerhart told a judge Tuesday he will appeal his blackmail and computer crimes convictions even though he was only fined $1,000.
“I am a felon now for speaking my mind in a political manner,” he told reporters after his formal sentencing. “If I don’t, every single person in this state can be done the same way that I’ve been done. It is wrong. It is wrong.”
A jury in May found Gerhart, 56, guilty of blackmail for sending state Sen. Cliff Branan an email last year demanding passage of a bill in a Senate committee. Branan was chairman of that committee.
The jury also found Gerhart guilty of violating the Oklahoma Computer Crimes Act for using a computer to accomplish the blackmail.
In an unusual verdict, jurors chose no prison time as punishment. Instead, jurors said he should be fined $1,000 for blackmail.
Oklahoma County District Judge Ray C. Elliott on Tuesday ordered Gerhart to pay that fine, plus $90 to a victims’ compensation fund.
The judge refused to throw out the guilty verdict. Gerhart’s defense attorney argued the judge could on the grounds the facts stated in the charge do not constitute a public offense.
Gerhart, an Oklahoma City carpenter, had faced up to 10 years in prison and $15,000 in fines on the two felony offenses.
His attorney, Kevin D. Adams, said he will argue only the free speech issue on appeal. If the Court of Criminal Appeals agrees Gerhart’s email was protected by the First Amendment, he would not be tried again.
The senator did not give in to the blackmail, instead reporting it to the Nichols Hills police chief. The bill died when it was not heard in the Senate committee.
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(sic) family, your associates and once we start on you there will be no end to it. This is a promise.”
Gerhart said Tuesday, “Now, we’re rough. There’s no question about it. I was rough on Branan. But that’s the only way you can get these people to listen to you. They’re corrupt.”
Branan, a Republican, sought election this year to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission but lost in the primary.
Gerhart on Tuesday took credit for that defeat, saying the Sooner Tea Party campaigned against Branan.
“If someone hits us, we hit them back 10 times harder,” he said.