A judge Friday ordered Sooner Tea Party co-founder Al Gerhart to face trial in a blackmail case.
Gerhart, a carpenter, is charged with two felonies over an email he admits sending to a state senator in an effort to get legislation passed.
Oklahoma County Special Judge Susan K. Johnson rejected defense arguments that the email was protected political speech.
“Your First Amendment rights are on trial, not just mine,” Gerhart told news reporters after the ruling was made at the end of a two-hour preliminary hearing.
Sen. Cliff Branan, R-Oklahoma City, said he felt anxious when he first read the email. “It kind of got the hairs up on the back of my neck,” he said.
Gerhart, 55, of Oklahoma City, is charged with blackmail and violating the Oklahoma Computer Crimes Act. He pleaded not guilty Friday.
Gerhart sent the email March 26, promising to make the senator a laughingstock unless the Senate Energy and Environment Committee passed a bill dealing with a United Nations plan.
Branan is chairman of the committee.
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.”
Under state 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.”
The senator testified that at the time he got the email he had not made a decision whether the Senate Energy and Environment Committee would take up the bill on the U.N. plan. He acknowledged, though, that he had been inclined not to hear it.
“I felt it was a solution to a problem that didn't exist,” he said.
The House-passed bill ended up not being heard in the committee because the Senate sponsor pulled it from consideration after learning of Gerhart's email.
Assistant District Attorney Robert McClatchie asked Branan: “Did you believe it was trying to make you do something you did not want to do?”
“Yes,” Branan replied.
“I definitely felt threatened,” the senator said.
“It was not your normal email,” he testified. “I felt like my two young children are out of bounds, as well as my wife.”
The senator explained that he worried Gerhart had sent the email to others and somebody who was mentally unstable would do something irrational.
Tommy Johnson, an agent with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, testified Branan said Gerhart had a Rolodex of crazy people.
Admitted into evidence during the preliminary hearing was a recording of Gerhart's April 2 news conference at the Capitol.
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 of fears an infidelity with an executive assistant would be uncovered.
The senator, who has been married almost 19 years, said Friday the affair allegation was not true.
His longtime executive assistant, Kathy Townsend, testified, “That is absurd. If Sen. Branan was going to … I don't know that he would choose a gray-haired grandmother to have an affair.”
Gerhart can raise his constitutional defense again before the trial judge. His next court hearing is Sept. 18.