A county commissioner in far southeast Oklahoma who was identified by a local newspaper as one of several officials caught on tape discussing killing reporters and lynching Black people has resigned from office, Governor Kevin Stitt's office confirmed Wednesday.
Stitt spokesperson Carly Atchison said the office received a handwritten resignation letter from McCurtain County Commissioner Mark Jennings. In it, Jennings says he is resigning immediately and that he plans to release a formal statement "in the near future regarding the recent events in our county."
The threatening comments by Jennings and officials with the McCurtain County Sheriff's Office were obtained following a March 6 meeting and reported by the McCurtain Gazette-News earlier this week in its weekend edition. They have sparked outrage and protests in the city of Idabel, the county seat.
In a post on the sheriff's office Facebook page on Tuesday, officials did not address the recorded discussion but claimed the recording was illegally obtained.
On Wednesday, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation confirmed it has launched an investigation into the matter at the request of the governor.
The recorded conversation included Sheriff Kevin Clardy, sheriff's Captain Alicia Manning, Jennings and Jail Administrator Larry Hendrix. During that conversation, Clardy, Manning and Jennings appear to discuss Bruce Willingham — the longtime publisher of the Gazette-News — and his son Chris Willingham, a reporter.
Jennings tells Clardy and Manning "I know where two deep holes are dug if you ever need them," and the sheriff responds, "I've got an excavator."
Jennings also 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."
The Associated Press is working to verify the authenticity of the recording. None of the four officials returned telephone calls or emails from The Associated Press seeking comment.
Bruce Willingham told the AP the recording was made 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.
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 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 sexually explicit images of children from a man who had been arrested on child sex abuse image 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.
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.