Those events started over the weekend, when the McCurtain Gazette-News published an article based on a recording that one of its reporters secretly made last month after a Board of Commissioners meeting. Reporter Bruce Willingham, who left his recorder running in the room after leaving the meeting, reported that the device caught Jennings and several other officials allegedly lamenting about no longer being able to beat up or lynch Black people who had been arrested, comparing a woman who had recently burned to death in a house fire to “barbecue” and floating the idea of getting hit men to kill two journalists who had reported on alleged misconduct by county officials for years.
Jennings did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment from The Washington Post, which reviewed the recordings but could not independently verify the identities of the speakers.
Three days earlier, Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) called on him and three other McCurtain County officials to step down, saying he was “appalled and disheartened to hear of the horrid comments.” The other officials are Sheriff Kevin Clardy, sheriff’s investigator Alicia Manning and county jail administrator Larry Hendrix.
“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,” Stitt said Sunday in a statement. “I will not stand idly by while this takes place.”
Clardy, Manning and Hendrix did not respond Wednesday to requests for comment, but in a Facebook post published Monday night, the sheriff’s office said the audio was “illegally obtained” and had not been authenticated. It also said that “preliminary information” indicated it had been “altered.”
The sheriff’s office said the making of the recording was “criminal activity” that violated the state’s Security of Communications Act, which it would investigate alongside other agencies and forward “to the appropriate authorities for felony charges to be filed on those involved,” according to the Facebook post.
Earlier on Monday, protesters swarmed a regularly scheduled board meeting at which commissioners were slated to discuss road maintenance and a local business’s zoning plan. The protesters held up a sign next to officials that read “Resign Now!” They also protested outside the commissioners’ office with more signs: “Crooked McCurtain County,” “Shed Light in the Darkness” and “The pen is mightier than the Sword!!”
On Tuesday, the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association met in an emergency meeting to discuss what was happening in McCurtain County, according to the association’s Facebook page. In a unanimous vote, the board suspended Clardy, Manning and Hendrix.
On Wednesday, state Sen. George Burns (R), who lives in and represents McCurtain County, said he met with Jennings and Clardy and told them to resign immediately over the alleged “racist, hateful comments.” In his statement made after Jennings did so, he continued to push Clardy, Manning and Hendrix “to do the right thing and submit their resignations as well.”
“I live in McCurtain County, and I want to state emphatically that these horrible comments do not represent the heart and spirit of our citizens,” Burns said in a statement.
Willingham, the Gazette-News reporter, told KWTV that he left his recorder on after the March 6 meeting, hoping to get evidence that Jennings and other officials were holding a secret meeting in violation of state law. No one answered at a number listed for the Gazette-News, and the lawyer representing reporter Chris Willingham, Bruce’s son, in a lawsuit against county officials said the Willinghams declined to comment.
The Gazette-News initially only published four snippets of the secret recordings, but the newspaper’s Thursday edition contained a QR code linking to the full audio recording, along with new stories about the events.