OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A sheriff in southeast Oklahoma who was among several county officials caught on tape discussing killing journalists and lynching Black people won’t face criminal charges or be removed from office, the state’s top prosecutor said Friday.
In a letter to Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, Attorney General Gentner Drummond said his office and the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation had completed their investigation and found no legal grounds to dismiss McCurtain County Sheriff Kevin Clardy.
“There are countless examples of incidents from across the country where public officials make inflammatory comments that spark severe condemnation,” Drummond wrote. “Oftentimes the offending official resigns in disgrace. Sometimes the outrage fades and the matter is forgotten.
He added: “Regardless, there is no provision of law in Oklahoma to throw elected officials out of office merely for saying something offensive.”
Drummond said McCurtain County voters will make the final decision on whether Clardy remains in office and suggested Stitt appeal to voters there and perhaps identify someone to run against Clardy.
Clardy and several other county officials sparked outrage after a local newspaper’s audio recording captured them complaining about two of the paper’s journalists and knowing hit men and where two holes are dug. Stitt quickly called for the resignation of Clardy, sheriff’s Capt. Alicia Manning, District 2 Commissioner Mark Jennings and Jail Administrator Larry Hendrix. Jennings was the only one to resign.
A message left Friday with the McCurtain County Sheriff’s Office seeking comment wasn’t immediately returned.
Bruce Willingham, the longtime publisher of the McCurtain Gazette-News, said the recording was made March 6 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. Chris Willingham, a reporter at the paper, is Bruce Willingham’s son.
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.
With a population of about 31,000 and bordering both Arkansas and Texas, the county has a long history of lawlessness dating back to days before statehood, but in recent years it has become a tourism hotbed, drawing thousands of visitors from the Dallas-Fort Worth region.
Follow Sean Murphy on Twitter: @apseanmurphy