MCCURTAIN COUNTY, Okla. (KTAL/KMSS) – In response to the public outcry over leaked recordings that revealed racist and violent comments made at a board of commissioners meeting, the McCurtain County Sheriff’s Office has claimed the recordings were altered.
The McCurtain Gazette-News reported a shocking conversation recorded by a Gazette publisher that shows several officials discussing killing a reporter and returning to hanging Black people, which sparked public outrage and protests.
Bruce Willingham, the longtime publisher of the McCurtain Gazette-News, said the recording was made on 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.
After the Gazette released the recordings, Governor Stitt formally called for the resignation of the four officials accused of taking part in these conversations. According to the Gazette, District 2 Commissioner Mark Jennings, investigator Alicia Manning, Jail Administrator Larry Hendrix, and Sheriff Kevin Clardy were recorded during the discussions on March 6 at a meeting of the county Board of Commissioners.
The Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association Board of Directors met in an emergency meeting Tuesday and unanimously voted to suspend Clardy, Manning, and Hendrix. The association is not a regulatory agency and is a membership organization only.
The MCSO claims the recordings, published by several news outlets, were altered and the transcripts do not match. They are also reportedly looking to file felony charges.
“Many of these recordings, like the one published by media outlets on Friday, have 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.”
Nexstar’s KTAL obtained some clips of the recording taken by Willingham.
CONTENT WARNING: Recordings contain profanity and threats of violence.
“…realize, like your job. I heard it the other day, said I heard two or 12 people were going for sheriff. I said ‘f***, let’s get 20.’ They don’t have a goddamn clue what they’re getting into, “Not this day and age. I’m going to tell you something — if it was back in the day when Alan Marston would take a damned Black guy and whoop their (expletive) and throw them in the cell, I’d run for (expletive) sheriff.”
“Yeah, well it’s not like that no more.”
“Take them down to Mud Creek and hang them up with damned rope. But you can’t do that anymore. They’ve got more rights than we’ve got.”
“But the thing of it is, you know.”
“We actually told the truth.”
“I’ve known two or three hitmen. They’re very quiet guys.”
“And would cut no f****** mercy.”
“In Louisiana, ’cause it’s all mafia around here.”
“Yeah, but here’s the reality. If a hair on his wife’s head (indistinguishable) head, or any of those people that really were behind all that, if a hair on their head got touched by anybody, who would be the bad guys?”
“Who would be blamed for it?”
“What they really don’t know is that. . .”
Crosstalk: “See, that’s the thing about 20 years ago I would of done something like that (inaudible).“
“. . . they are insignificant in my life, really. They bring no (inaudible).”
“The old saying is, ‘what goes around comes around.’ It will. I told you it will”
“I know where two big deep holes are if you need them.”
“I’ve got an excavator.
“Well, these are already pre-dug.”
The MCSO claims that the Oklahoma Security of Communications Act, Title 13, Statute 176.3, and Prohibited Acts Statute 176.4 prohibits secretly recording conversations that the person is not involved in, and they must have the consent of at least one of the people involved. The statutes primarily address “common carriers,” which Oklahoma Statue §13-4 defines as “Everyone who offers to the public to carry persons, property or messages is a common carrier of whatever he thus offers to carry.”
Oklahoma Crimes and Punishments Statute §21-1171 Peeping Tom – Use of Photographic, Electronic or Video Equipment only states that recording is illegal if those involved are in a place where there is an expectation of privacy.
Oklahoma Statute §21-540 Obstructing Officer also states, “Any person who willfully delays or obstructs any public officer in the discharge or attempt to discharge any duty of his or her office, is guilty of a misdemeanor. Nothing in this section shall preclude a person from recording the activity of law enforcement in a public area, as long as the recording activity does not delay or obstruct the law enforcement agent in his or her duties.”
Oklahoma State University Professor in Mass Communication Law Joey Senat said, “This conversation occurred in a public room where the county commission had just met, and other people were around. You generally don’t have an expectation of privacy when you’re talking in a public place like that. That’s different from had they been talking in a commissioner’s office with the door shut, but that’s not what they did.”
He does not believe the scenario qualifies to charge the reporter.
According to the Board of Commissioner’s website, business meetings are “open to the public and must comply with the Open Meeting Act.”
The MCSO did not address an investigation into what was said in the recordings. They claim “a large number of threats of violence including death threats have been made against county employees and officials, their families and friends.”
The MCSO says they will forward their findings to the appropriate authorities to file felony charges against those involved.
According to the Gazette, one of the reporters threatened in the recordings, Chris Willingham, filed a suit against the sheriff’s office, the Board of County Commissioners and Manning the day his father recorded the conversations.