Oklahoma's governor is seeking the resignation of four county officials after a newspaper's audio recording apparently captured some of them complaining about two of the paper's journalists and knowing hit men and where two holes are dug.
A portion of the recording was released by the paper, and it also appears to capture one of the four making racist comments about Black people.
Gov. Kevin Stitt said Sunday he was seeking the resignations of McCurtain County Sheriff Kevin Clardy and three other county officials: sheriff’s Capt. Alicia Manning, District 2 Commissioner Mark Jennings and Jail Administrator Larry Hendrix.
“I am both appalled and disheartened to hear of the horrid comments made by officials in McCurtain County," Stitt said in a statement. “There is simply no place for such hateful rhetoric in the state of Oklahoma, especially by those that serve to represent the community through their respective office.”
The McCurtain Gazette-News released portions of an audio recording following a March 6 county commission meeting in which Clardy, Manning and Jennings appear to discuss reporters Bruce and Chris Willingham. Jennings tells Clardy and Manning “I know where two deep holes are dug if you ever need them,” and the sheriff responded, “I've got an excavator.”
Jennings also said he's known “two or three hit men” in Louisiana, adding "they're very quiet guys.”
In the recording, Jennings also appears to complain about not being able to hang Black people, saying: “They got more rights than we got.”
The Associated Press could not immediately verify the authenticity of the recording. None of the four returned telephone calls or emails from The Associated Press on Monday seeking comment.
A spokeswoman for the FBI’s office in Oklahoma City said the agency’s policy is not to confirm or deny any ongoing investigation. Phil Bacharach, a spokesman for Attorney General Gentner Drummond, said the agency had received an audio recording and is investigating the incident, but declined to comment further.
More than 100 people gathered outside the McCurtain County Courthouse in Idabel on Monday, with many of them calling for the sheriff and other county officials to resign.
Bruce Willingham, the longtime publisher of the McCurtain Gazette-News, said the recording was made March 6 when he left a voice-activated recorder inside the room after a county commissioner's meeting because he suspected the group was continuing to conduct county business after the meeting had ended in violation of the state's Open Meeting Act. Chris Willingham, a reporter at the paper, is Bruce Willingham's son.
“I talked on two different occasions to our attorneys to make sure I wasn't doing anything illegal,” Bruce Willingham said.
Bruce Willingham said he believes the local officials were upset about “stories we've run that cast the sheriff's office in an unfavorable light,” including the death of Bobby Barrick, a Broken Bow, Oklahoma, man who died at a hospital in March 2022 after McCurtain County deputies shot him with a stun gun. The newspaper has filed a lawsuit against the sheriff's office seeking body camera footage and other records connected to Barrick's death.
Bruce Willingham said he has also turned over his audio recordings to the FBI and the Oklahoma Attorney General's Office and added he has had several conversations with federal investigators.
Joey Senat, a journalism professor at Oklahoma State University, said he was shocked to hear the comments made in the recording, especially in light of recent killings of journalists in the U.S., including the arrest last year of a Las Vegas-area elected official accused of fatally stabbing a veteran newspaper reporter who had been investigating him.
“The whole conversation seemed deplorable,” Senat said. “I was shocked as I assume most people were not only about the comments about journalists, but the racist comments regarding African Americans. Joking doesn’t excuse that.”
Senat said under Oklahoma law, the recording would be legal if it were obtained in a place where the officials being recorded did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
McCurtain County is in far southeast Oklahoma, bordering both Arkansas and Texas, in a part of the state often referred to as “Little Dixie,” because of the influence in the area from white Southerners who migrated there after the Civil War.
With its rolling, forested hills in the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains, the area has become a tourism hotbed attracting a steady stream of visitors from the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
State Rep. Eddy Dempsey, a Republican who represents the area in the Oklahoma House, said the recorded comments don't reflect the values of his constituents and echoed Stitt's call for the four people involved in the conversation to resign.
“All my life, we've always said we don't get enough recognition in southeast Oklahoma,” Dempsey said. “But we don't need this kind of recognition.”