A small community in Southeast Oklahoma has been rocked by scandal this week, after secret recordings of three local officials revealed that they’d made violent threats against newspaper reporters and joked about killing Black people.
Now that the FBI has gotten involved and the governor has called for their resignations, the local county sheriff is arguing on Facebook that the recording was made illegally and tampered with.
It started on March 6 when McCurtain County Sheriff Kevin Clardy attended a meeting with the county’s Board of Commissioners. Online records show the county officials were supposed to discuss bids to accept, resolutions to approve, and traffic rules to change—the sort of upkeep typical for a local government’s agenda.
But the conversations somehow wandered away from the agenda and into a discussion about lynching Black people.
“If it was back in the day, when Alan Marston would take a damned Black guy and whoop their ass and throw him in the cell? I’d run for fucking sheriff,” District 2 Commissioner Mark Jennings said, according to the McCurtain Gazette News, a print-only local publication that was first to report on the audio.
“Yeah,” Clardy replied. “Well, it’s not like that no more.”
“I know,” Jennings said. “Take them down to Mud Creek and hang them up with a damn rope. But you can’t do that anymore. They got more rights than we got.”
The racist remarks from Clardy and Jennings were made as part of a meandering conversation with Alicia Manning, one of Clardy’s investigators, in which the group complained about not being able to attack Black people and fantasized about killing two local newspaper reporters. District 3 Commissioner Robert Beck and Jail Administrator Larry Hendrix also participated in the conversation to a lesser degree, according to transcripts shared by the McCurtain Gazette.
The conversation began as officials discussed a recent house fire that killed a local resident, which the officials spun into shocking banter about barbecue.
“We wrap it up in tinfoil to preserve the body and stuff like that,” Clardy said. “And Dot kept them, all the body, heart, stuff like that.” He then recalled how his son and deputy Kyler Clardy joked about “pre-heat[ing] the oven 350 degrees” and letting the woman’s body sit for 15 minutes. “And he looked her in her face and said you wanna go with me and go eat barbecue?”
At one point, Jennings muses about hiring “two or three hit men” from a Louisiana mafia to assassinate Bruce and Chris Willingham, a father-son journalist duo at the McCurtain Gazette-News who have published reports on the local sheriff’s department that “cast the sheriff’s office in an unfavorable light,” Bruce Willingham told the AP.
Kilpatrick Townsend, the law firm representing the Willinghams, told NBC News that Clardy’s office had antagonized them in the past over their reporting.
“For nearly a year, they have suffered intimidation, ridicule and harassment based solely on their efforts to report the news for McCurtain County,” their statement said.
Chris Willingham, a reporter for the paper, has written dozens of articles alleging corruption in Clardy’s office over the past few years.
The day of the board meeting, he sued the county board for allegedly retaliating against him for an eight-part investigative series he wrote for the Gazette-News, and a few days later he filed a separate suit for records relating to the death of a Choctaw Nation citizen after a brush with the police.
It was around this time that he decided to leave a recording device in the commissioners’ chamber based on a tip that official business was being conducted after the meetings ended, which would violate Oklahoma’s Open Meetings Act. But when he retrieved the device, he heard threats against his life instead.
“If a hair on [Bruce’s] wife’s head, Chris Willingham’s head, or any of those people that really were behind that,” Jennings said, “if any hair on their head got touched by anybody, who would be the bad guy?”
“Who would be blamed for it?” the sheriff added.
Over the weekend, the print-only paper reported that they were in possession of the full recording, which Bruce Willingham’s lawyers said they’ve turned over to the FBI and the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office. Snippets of the conversation were released to the public on April 13, triggering protests from enraged locals and a call from the governor for the county officials’ resignations.
“I am both appalled and disheartened to hear of the horrid comments made by officials in McCurtain County,” Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) said in a statement released 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.”
Clardy broke his silence with a Facebook post on Monday. “The last 72 hours have been amongst the most difficult and disruptive in recent memory,” he wrote on the McCurtain County Sheriff’s page.
In the post he claimed to be conducting an investigation into “multiple, significant violation[s] of the Oklahoma Security of Communications Act,” stating that it’s illegal to record conversation that you’re not a part of without at least one participants’ consent.
“Many of these recordings, like the one published by media outlets on Friday, have yet to be duly authenticated or validated,” he wrote. “Our preliminary information indicates that the media released audio record has, in fact, been altered. The motivation for doing so remains unclear at this point. That matter is actively being investigated.”
He complained that his office had received a “large number” of violent threats since the transcript hit the news. He does not, however, directly dispute or clarify what can be heard in the recordings.
“I talked on two different occasions to our attorneys to make sure I wasn’t doing anything illegal,” Bruce Willingham told the AP.
A follow-up article is tentatively set to be published on Thursday. The Willinghams, meanwhile, have reportedly been advised to leave town.
Correction: A previous version of this article had the wrong date for the board meeting. It was held on March 6. TPM regrets the error.