Kevin Stitt, the horrific governor of Oklahoma, is “outraged” over the words of Republican officials in McCurtain County saying the worst possible things. But I think we all know that the only reason he is calling for them to resign is that they were dumb enough to say this stuff while being recorded. I assume this is basically a standard conversation about elected Republicans in almost any state in the nation in 2023.
After McCurtain County officials dispatched with the agenda and ushered citizens out of a public meeting last month in southeastern Oklahoma, they spoke among themselves without realizing they were being secretly recorded, a local newspaper reported.
During the ensuing conversation, a county commissioner lamented about how they could no longer yank Black people out of the jail, “take them down to Mud Creek and hang them up with a … rope,” according to McCurtain Gazette-News, which later published a recording online. The sheriff allegedly mocked a woman who’d recently burned to death in a house fire, comparing her to “barbecue.” And together they hinted at assassinating a journalist who’d reported on their alleged misconduct, according to the Gazette-News.
Over the weekend, the newspaper published an article recounting a portion of that alleged conversation, promising to follow up with more reporting in coming weeks. The paper also posted snippets of the audio online. Gazette-News reporter Bruce Willingham told KWTV he left his recorder hoping to get evidence that officials were holding secret meetings.
The recorded comments were made at the March 6 public meeting of the McCurtain Board of Commissioners, the Gazette-News reported. After the public left, Sheriff Clardy gave the board an update on a deadly fire that had happened four days earlier when a 43-year-old woman died after rushing back into the flames to try to save her two dogs, according to the paper.
Then someone asked a question about burn victims’ body parts.
“You never had barbecue?” Hendrix allegedly asked, rhetorically.
Later, the conversation turned to Gazette-News reporter Christopher Willingham’s coverage of the sheriff’s office. Manning, the sheriff’s investigator, allegedly said she had some packages to take to the shipping center, which is located near the newspaper’s office, and feared running into Willingham, Bruce’s son, because of what she might do to him.
“Oh, you’re talking about you can’t control yourself?” commissioner Jennings asked her, according to the newspaper’s reporting.
“Yeah, I ain’t worried about what he’s going to do to me. I’m worried about what I might do to him,” she allegedly said. “My papaw would have … wiped him and used him for toilet paper.”
Later, Jennings allegedly told Clardy and Manning that he knew of “two big, deep holes” if they needed them. Jennings later allegedly said he’d come across “two or three hit men” in his life who “would cut no … mercy” to Chris Willingham.
On March 6, the same day as the secretly recorded meeting, Willingham had sued county commissioners, the sheriff’s office, Clardy and Manning in the U.S. District Court of Eastern Oklahoma, accusing them of slandering him.
His suit followed years of reporting on the sheriff’s department for the Gazette-News. In November 2021, the newspaper ran the first article in what would be an eight-part series about misconduct in the sheriff’s office, according to the lawsuit. Over the next five months, the newspaper exposed several instances of alleged misconduct in the sheriff’s office based on interviews with current and former employees, including homicide evidence that had been tainted, questionable hirings of employees with no previous law enforcement experience and an investigation into who in the sheriff’s office was leaking information, the suit says.
In an effort to plug the leak, Clardy threatened to fire any of his employees who spoke with Willingham, and Manning told deputies she would get search warrants for their cellphones, it alleges.
In June 2022, Manning allegedly retaliated against Willingham for his reporting by telling someone that the reporter had traded marijuana for child pornography. That same day, Manning said in a teleconference that Willingham was “one of them,” mentioning the name of a man who had been convicted of having child pornography and sexually abusing a child, Willingham’s suit alleges.
Those were lies to smear Willingham and destroy his credibility as a journalist, it adds.
The reporter deserves a Pulitzer.