- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 6, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - An Oklahoma state senator told a jury Tuesday that he felt threatened by an email from the co-founder of a tea party group vowing to “dig into your past” and mentioning his family and associates.

Prosecutors rested their case shortly after Sen. Cliff Branan, a Republican from Oklahoma City, testified at the blackmail and computer crimes trial of Sooner Tea Party co-founder Al Gerhart. Attorneys also questioned two defense witnesses and more will testify Wednesday, when jurors are expected to begin deliberating.

Gerhart, 55, was charged last year after prosecutors said the email was intended to intimidate Branan. Gerhart has acknowledged sending an email to Branan. He said the email was protected political speech under the Constitution and has pleaded not guilty.

Branan, the chairman of the Senate Energy, Telecommunication and Environment Committee, said he interpreted the email as a threat.

“The hairs got raised up on the back of my neck,” Branan testified. “I know there are people in this world who will harm people.”

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 if I don’t hear that this bill will be heard and passed,” the email said, according to court documents. “We will dig into your past, yoru family, your associates, and once we start on you there will be no end to it.”

Branan said the legislation was based on a “fringe conspiracy” that the U.N. wanted to use its Agenda 21 plan to encroach on the private property rights of Americans. He said he was troubled by the email’s reference to his family and those he associates with.

“I’m pretty much fair game. Dig into me. I’m an open book,” said Branan, who is running for a seat on the Oklahoma Corporation Commission this fall. “Somebody who would come after somebody’s family has something different in their heart,” Branan said.

Branan said he had never met Gerhart.

“I don’t reach out to them,” Branan said. “I prefer not to run around with people who are on the fringe.”

Branan said he thought the email was an attempt to compel him to do something he did not want to do. He denied suggestions by defense attorney Kevin Adams that the criminal charges are an effort to silence Gerhart because the senator cannot deal with the stress that comes with his job.

“I can handle the pressure,” Branan said.

Defense witness Kirk Shelley, a senior consultant for state operations of the Campaign for Liberty, a Virginia-based conservative political group, said he has trained Gerhart in what is known as “confrontational politics” in which advocates make demands of political officials.

“He’s done it very, very well,” Shelley said. “We’re trying to stand up for our important principles.”

Sen. Ralph Shortey, R-Oklahoma City, testified that Gerhart is “known as aggressive” at the state Capitol.

“I don’t agree with his tactics. I’ve called him vicious,” Shortey testified.

In his opening statements, Adams said the content of the email was constitutionally protected freedom of speech. Assistant District Attorney Rob McClatchie said Gerhart’s actions were that “of a bully who believed he could cheat the Oklahoma political process.”

“You cannot threaten to get what you want,” McClatchie said. “What he did is illegal.”

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