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.”