By KEN MILLER and SEAN MURPHY
(AP) An Oklahoma sheriff’s office says a newspaper’s audio recording in which the sheriff and other county officials are reportedly heard discussing killing two journalists and hanging Black people was illegal and predicted felony charges will be filed.
A post on the sheriff’s office Facebook page — the agency’s first public comment since the comments by Sheriff Kevin Clardy and others were reported by the McCurtain Gazette-News — does not address the recorded discussion, but calls the situation “complex” and one “we regret having to address.”
The threatening comments by the officials that were recorded have sparked outrage and protests. Oklahoma’s GOP Gov. Kevin Stitt and state Rep. Eddy Dempsey, a Republican who represents the area, have called for Clardy and others to resign. NAACP leaders in Oklahoma also called for the FBI and the Department of Justice to investigate.
The sheriff’s statement calls the past 72 hours “amongst the most difficult and disruptive in recent memory” and says the recording was altered and involves many victims.
“There is and has been an ongoing investigation into multiple, significant violation(s) of the Oklahoma Security of Communications Act … which states that it is 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,” according to the statement.
Joey Senat, a journalism professor at Oklahoma State University, 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.
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.
Willingham said he twice spoke with his attorneys to be sure he was doing nothing illegal.
The newspaper released portions of the recording in which Clardy, sheriff’s Capt. Alicia Manning and District 2 County Commissioner Mark Jennings appear to discuss Bruce and Chris Willingham, a reporter for the newspaper who is Bruce Willingham’s son. 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 reportedly says 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.”
Jail Administrator Larry Hendrix was also present during the conversation.
The Associated Press could not immediately verify the authenticity of the recording. None of the four have returned telephone calls or emails from The Associated Press.
Glenn Cook, the executive editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, where reporter Jeff German was stabbed to death in September allegedly by an elected official the reporter was investigating, said he was “chilled to the bone” after learning about the Oklahoma case.
“What’s almost as troubling as the contents of the recording is the complete absence of shame,” Cook said of the sheriff’s office’s response to the incident. “Sadly, the willingness of government to protect itself at all costs really never surprises me, but in this particular case the kind of digging in that we’re seeing reflects incredibly poorly on the people of Oklahoma.”
A spokesperson for the FBI’s office in Oklahoma City declined to comment on the case. Phil Bacharach, a spokesperson for Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond, said the agency had received an audio recording and is investigating the incident, but declined to comment further.
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.
Separately, Chris Willingham has filed a federal lawsuit against the sheriff’s office, Clardy, Manning and the Board of County Commissioners alleging Manning slandered him after he wrote an eight-part series of articles detailing problems inside the sheriff’s office. The lawsuit claims after the first few articles were published, Clardy and Manning began investigating which office employees were speaking to the newspaper and were attempting to get a search warrant for Willingham’s phone.
The lawsuit, which was filed on the same day the recording was made, alleges that after the series was published, Manning told a third party during a teleconference that Chris Willingham exchanged marijuana for pornographic images of children from a man who had been arrested on child pornography charges.
“Manning made these (and other) false statements about Willingham in retaliation for articles he wrote about the (sheriff’s office) as a reporter for the McCurtain Gazette and to destroy his credibility as a reporter and journalist,” the lawsuit states.
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.
On Tuesday, the Oklahoma Sheriff’s Association, a voluntary membership organization and not a regulatory agency, held an emergency meeting of its board. It voted unanimously to suspend Clardy, Manning and Hendrix from the association.
The sheriff’s office statement said there have been “a large number of threats of violence including death threats” against unspecified county employees, officials, their families and friends since the conversation was first reported.
The statement said the sheriff’s office will issue news releases until its investigation concludes “and findings are forwarded to the appropriate authorities for felony charges to be filed on those involved.”
The incident in Oklahoma follows the February killing of a television news reporter who was shot and killed and a cameraman wounded in Florida while filming a story about a homicide that happened earlier that day.