- Associated Press - Saturday, May 10, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - The conviction of a tea party leader on felony blackmail and computer crimes charges brought unwanted attention to the conservative political movement but has not diminished its message of limited government and lower taxes, according to other tea party leaders in Oklahoma.

An Oklahoma County jury convicted Sooner tea party co-founder Al Gerhart on Wednesday after prosecutors claimed he sent a politically charged email to a state senator who testified that he felt threatened by the email’s tone.

Gerhart was an Oklahoma City cabinet maker when he became an early face of the tea party movement four years ago. But even then, some conservative Oklahomans were concerned when he targeted the state’s Republican Party leader and floated the idea of a volunteer militia to guard the state from what were called federal infringements on state sovereignty.

Al has a very hard time working well with others,” said Charlie Meadows, president of the Oklahoma Conservative Political Action Committee. “Al is not effective at all, and it’s because of his confrontational style.”

State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones, who was the state GOP chairman once targeted by Gerhart, said the Sooner tea party leader’s influence is “very small.”

“It’s not representative of individuals that are part of the tea party movement. He’s the Lone Ranger on his mission,” Jones said.

And Stuart Jolly, former director of the Oklahoma Chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group, said “People like Al Gerhart have tainted the words ‘tea party’ in this state.”

Gerhart has acknowledged he sent an email to state Sen. Cliff Branan, R-Oklahoma City, urging him to schedule a hearing on legislation favored by Gerhart’s political group. Branan, chairman of the Senate Energy, Telecommunication and Environment Committee, testified he felt threatened.

The March 26, 2013, email said if Branan’s committee didn’t take up a bill to prohibit state organizations from following a United Nations plan to help cities and countries become more environmentally sustainable, “I will make sure you regret not doing it.”

“I will make you the laughing stock of the Senate …,” the email read. “We will dig into your past, yoru family, your associates, and once we start on you there will be no end to it.”

Gerhart has defended his practice of “confrontational politics” and believes the First Amendment’s free speech guarantees give him the right to make demands of politicians.

“What I did was legal,” said Gerhart, who has vowed to appeal his conviction and sentence. “Will the appellate court follow the law?”

Gerhart’s 12-member jury recommended that he pay a $1,000 fine and serve no time in prison. He faced up to five years in prison on each count.

Gerhart said he believes his conviction will invigorate the tea party movement to push harder to achieve conservative political change. He likened his methods to the 1773 Boston Tea Party, where demonstrators, some disguised as American Indians, destroyed an entire shipment of tea in defiance of the Tea Act, a tax on tea imported from Britain.

“It’s an ugly, ugly business,” Gerhart said. “We’re going to have to be confrontational. They’re not willing to fight. They’re willing to ask.”

But other tea party leaders said Gerhart’s methods crossed the line of civil discourse and forced many in the movement to distance themselves from him.

“The degree to which Al Gerhart has been related to the tea party has been extraordinarily exaggerated,” said Richard Engle, co-founder of OCPAC. “Early on there was some reason to think that he was genuine. People quickly realized that he was not. Nobody controls the tea party.”

Some tea party activists believe Gerhart’s confrontational methods do not rise to the level of a criminal act and expressed concern about future communications among legislators and their constituents.

“This is a dangerous, dangerous decision,” Meadows said. “Knowledgeable people are going to have to be very careful in how they couch things to lawmakers. It’s such a fine line.”

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