UPDATE: 4/19/23: Governor Stitt's office has announced the resignation of McCurtain County Commissioner Mark Jennings.
Oklahoma Republican Governor Kevin Stitt has demanded the resignations of four McCurtain County officials after a local newspaper revealed a disturbing audio recording.
The McCurtain Gazette-News released portions of the recording that captured county officials Kevin Clardy, Alicia Manning, and Mark Jennings discussing journalists Bruce and Chris Willingham. In the recording, Jennings also made racist remarks about Black people.
The recording also appears to capture Jennings claiming he knows "two or three hit men" and "where two deep holes are dug." Governor Stitt expressed his dismay over the "horrid comments" and emphasized that "there is simply no place for such hateful rhetoric in the state of Oklahoma."
The Associated Press could not immediately verify the authenticity of the recording, and none of the four officials have returned calls or emails from The Associated Press seeking comment. However, more than 100 people gathered outside the McCurtain County Courthouse, calling for the sheriff and other county officials to resign.
The audio of their remarks is included below.
According to Bruce Willingham, the proprietor of the McCurtain Gazette-News, he placed a voice-activated recorder inside the room following a county commissioner's meeting on March 6.
He had a suspicion that the group was conducting county business after the meeting's conclusion in breach of the state's Open Meeting Act. Chris Willingham, Bruce Willingham's son, works as a reporter at the newspaper.
The FBI and Oklahoma Attorney General's Office are investigating the incident, and the local newspaper has filed a lawsuit against the sheriff's office, seeking body camera footage and other records related to 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 recorded conversation has shocked many, including Joey Senat, a journalism professor at Oklahoma State University, who said the comments made in the recording seemed "deplorable."
"I was shocked as I assume most people were, not only about the comments about journalists but the racist comments regarding African Americans. Joking doesn't excuse that."
Others have taken to social media to express their outrage.
McCurtain County is located in southeast Oklahoma, bordering Arkansas and Texas.
It is sometimes called "Little Dixie" due to the influence in the area from White Southerners who migrated there after the Confederacy lost the Civil War.
Republican Oklahoma state Representative Eddy Dempsey, who represents the area in the Oklahoma House, echoed Governor Stitt's call for the four people involved in the conversation to resign.
Dempsey said the area does not "need this kind of recognition."