By TINA BURNSIDE and RAJA RAZEK
The governor of Oklahoma has called on four McCurtain County officials to resign after they allegedly participated in a secretly recorded conversation that included racist remarks about lynching Black people and talking about killing journalists.
The McCurtain Gazette-News over the weekend published the audio it said was recorded following a Board of Commissioners meeting on March 6.
The paper said the audio of the meeting was legally obtained, but the McCurtain County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement that it was illegally recorded and is investigating. The sheriff’s office also said it believes the recording had been altered.
“I am both appalled and disheartened to hear of the horrid comments made by officials in McCurtain County,” Gov. Kevin Stitt said in a statement Sunday. “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. I will not stand idly by while this takes place.”
The governor called for the immediate resignations of McCurtain County Sheriff Kevin Clardy, District 2 Commissioner Mark Jennings, sheriff’s investigator Alicia Manning and jail administrator Larry Hendrix. He also said he would ask the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation to look into the case.
McCurtain County is in southeastern Oklahoma, about 200 miles from Oklahoma City.
The recording was made hours after Gazette-News reporter Chris Willingham filed a lawsuit against the sheriff’s office, Manning and the Board of County Commissioners, alleging they had defamed him and violated his civil rights, the newspaper reported.
In the recording, Manning spoke of needing to go near the newspaper’s office and expressed concern about what would happen if she ran into Willingham, the Oklahoman reported, citing additional reporting from the Gazette-News.
According to the Oklahoman report, Jennings said, “Oh, you’re talking about you can’t control yourself?” and Manning replied: “Yeah, I ain’t worried about what he’s gonna do to me. I’m worried about what I might do to him. My papaw would have whipped his a**, would have wiped him and used him for toilet paper … if my daddy hadn’t been run over by a vehicle, he would have been down there.”
Jennings replied that his father was once upset by something the newspaper published and “started to go down there and just kill him,” according to the Gazette-News.
“I know where two big, deep holes are here if you ever need them,” Jennings allegedly said. Clardy, the sheriff, allegedly said he had the equipment.
“I’ve got an excavator,” Clardy is accused of saying during the discussion.
“Well, these are already pre-dug,” Jennings allegedly said.
In other parts of the recording, officials expressed disappointment that Black people could no longer be lynched, according to the paper.
CNN has not been able to verify the authenticity of the recording or confirm who said what. CNN has reached out to all four county officials for comment.
State and local agencies investigating
Willingham and his father, Bruce Willingham, the paper’s publisher, have been advised to temporarily leave town, CNN affiliate KJRH reported.
“For nearly a year, they have suffered intimidation, ridicule and harassment based solely on their efforts to report the news for McCurtain County,” Kilpatrick Townsend, the law firm representing the Willingham family, told CNN in a statement.
The McCurtain County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement Monday that there is an “ongoing investigation into multiple significant violations” of the Oklahoma Security of Communications Act, which makes it “illegal to secretly record a conversation in which you are not involved and do not have the consent of at least one of the involved parties.” It also said the recording has yet to be “duly authenticated or validated.”
“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 said.
The Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office has received an audio recording and is investigating, Communications Director Phil Bacharach said.
The FBI wouldn’t confirm or deny whether it was involved in the investigation, with spokesperson Kayla McCleery saying it is agency policy not to comment.
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