An Oklahoma Newspaper’s Secret Recording Prompts Calls for Officials to Resign

A small newspaper in rural Oklahoma secretly recorded what it said was an illegal public meeting where a county official talked about hanging Black people and several officials spoke of hiring hit men and digging holes for two of the newspaper’s reporters.

Gov. Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma said on Monday that four officials in McCurtain County — the sheriff, a jail administrator, a sheriff’s department investigator and a county commissioner — should resign. One of those officials, the county commissioner, Mark Jennings, said he was resigning in a letter released by the governor’s office on Wednesday.

But the sheriff’s office has argued that the recording violated state law because it was made without the consent of at least one of the parties involved. The office also claimed the recording had been “altered,” although it was not clear how.

Clips of the recording released on Friday night by the newspaper, The McCurtain Gazette-News, have touched off shock and anger in the county of about 31,000 residents in the southeastern corner of the state, bordering Arkansas and Texas.

The Gazette-News, which was founded in 1905 and does not have a website, published a QR code on its front page that linked to transcripts and audio clips of what it said was a long and meandering discussion that took place after a regularly scheduled county commissioners’ meeting on March 6.

The newspaper, which publishes three times a week, also ran a story about the recording under the headline: “County officials discuss killing, burying Gazette reporters.”

On Monday, dozens of residents protested outside the office of the board of county commissioners, holding signs that deplored racism and demanding the resignation of the sheriff, Kevin Clardy, and other county officials. In an anticipation of the protest, a county hospital announced that it was going into lockdown.

“Let’s call it what it is — it’s hate, and the community is tired of it,” said Lonnie Watson, 51, a local teacher and retired corrections officer who is Black and joined the demonstration.

Bruce Willingham, who has been publisher and editor of The Gazette-News since 1988, said he made the secret recording on March 6 by leaving his voice-activated recorder in the room where county commissioners were meeting. He said he wanted to prove that officials were discussing county business after the meeting had ended in violation of the state’s open-meeting law.

He said he had consulted with lawyers who assured him that the recording was legal as long as the officials were talking about public business. “This was all an ongoing public meeting,” he said.

After the meeting was over, he said, he retrieved his recorder and listened to the three-hour discussion. “I thought I was going to hear a lot of small talk about county business, but as it got farther along, they started talking about bizarre things,” Mr. Willingham said.

According to the transcript released by the newspaper, Mr. Jennings, a county commissioner, talked about hanging Black people by a creek. “But you can’t do that anymore,” he said, according to the transcript. “They got more rights than we got.”

Mr. Jennings, Sheriff Clardy and Alicia Manning, a sheriff’s office investigator, also complained about Mr. Willingham and his son, Christopher Willingham, a reporter for The Gazette-News, according to the newspaper.

Christopher Willingham sued Sheriff Clardy, Ms. Manning and the board of county commissioners last month, claiming that he had been slandered in retaliation for an eight-part investigative series he wrote about the sheriff’s office in 2021 and 2022.

“I know where two big deep holes are here if you ever need them,” Mr. Jennings said on the recording, according to the transcript.

The sheriff responded: “I’ve got an excavator.”

Mr. Jennings replied: “Well, these are already pre-dug.”

At another point, according to the transcript, Mr. Jennings said, “I’ve known two or three hit men, they’re very quiet guys.”

“Yeah?” Ms. Manning responded.

“And would cut no mercy,” Mr. Jennings said, adding an expletive.

Bruce Willingham said he had turned over the full audio recording to the police and the F.B.I.

“I’ve been concerned for my safety and working closely with law enforcement,” he said in an interview on Monday. “On Friday, I thought I was writing my last editorial. I thought something might happen to me.”

A spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Oklahoma City said the bureau does not confirm or deny investigations. The Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office said: “We can confirm that we are investigating the situation in McCurtain County, but have nothing else we can comment on at this time.”

Governor Stitt said that he planned to ask the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation to determine whether any illegal conduct had occurred. He also called for the resignations of Sheriff Clardy, Ms. Manning, Mr. Jennings and the county jail administrator, Larry Hendrix.

“I am both appalled and disheartened to hear of the horrid comments made by officials in McCurtain County,” the governor 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.”

Sheriff Clardy, Ms. Manning and Mr. Jennings did not immediately respond to phone messages and emails on Monday and Tuesday. Mr. Hendrix said he had been advised not to comment.

In a statement released on Monday, the sheriff’s office said that an investigation had begun into violations of state communications law.

“Many of these recordings, like the one published by media outlets on Friday, have yet to be duly authenticated or validated,” the statement said. “Our preliminary information indicates that the media released audio recording has, in fact, been altered. The motivation for doing so remains unclear at this point. That matter is actively being investigated.”

The statement also claimed that the audio did not match the newspaper’s transcription.

Christin Jones, a lawyer for the Willinghams and The Gazette-News, said in an email on Tuesday: “It is an accurate recording and does not violate the Oklahoma Security of Communications Act. The full audio is planned to be released on Thursday.”

Mayor Craig Young of Idabel, Okla., the county seat, said that he had joined the demonstration on Monday and supported the call for Sheriff Clardy and other officials to resign. Mr. Young, who is Black, said the comments on the recording did not reflect the values of the community.

“Our community is not so racist and so divided,” he said. “We’re not like that. They don’t speak for our community.”

Bruce Willingham also said that the comments on the recording were “not reflective of the community.”

“This community has really held together well, and has been supportive, generally,” he said. “This is really shocking behavior from public officials — just really shocking and surprising.”

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