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Oklahoma county commissioner accused of making violent, racist remarks on tape resigns

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt delivers his State of the State address on Feb. 6 in Oklahoma City. He has called on county officials heard making racist remarks to resign.
Sue Ogrocki
/
AP
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt delivers his State of the State address on Feb. 6 in Oklahoma City. He has called on county officials heard making racist remarks to resign.

Updated April 19, 2023 at 3:02 PM ET

An Oklahoma county commissioner resigned on Wednesday after being caught on a recording allegedly making violent and racist remarks and jokes with members of the McCurtain County Sheriff's Office.

McCurtain County Commissioner Mark Jennings submitted a curt resignation letter written on lined notebook paper at about 8:30 a.m. local time.

"Effective immediately, I, Mark Jennings do hereby resign as McCurtain County District #2 commissioner. I will release a formal statement in the near future regarding the recent events in our county," Jennings wrote.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt had called on Jennings and three other county officials, including Sheriff Kevin Clardy, investigator Alicia Manning and jail administrator Larry Hendrix, to resign after they were caught on a March 6 recording.

The recordings, which have not been authenticated by NPR, reportedly contain graphic conversations in which the group talks about murdering local journalists and lynching Black Oklahomans.

"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 in a statement, according to The Associated Press and other outlets. "I will not stand idly by while this takes place."

His statement came in response to the release of an audio recording by the McCurtain Gazette-News, a local newspaper that said it recorded the comments at a public meeting.

McCurtain Gazette-News publisher Bruce Willingham said he left a voice-activated recorder in the room following a county commissioners' meeting on March 6 because he suspected officials were continuing to conduct businesses after the meeting in violation of the state's Open Meeting Act, the AP reported.

Audio captured by the recorder appears to include the officials discussing burned bodies falling apart, hitmen they knew and lynching.

According to a transcript of the recording, Jennings appears to say that "back in the day" someone could take a "a damn Black guy and whoop their ass and throw him in the cell," he said.

"Take them down to Mud Creek and hang them up with a damn rope. But you can't do that anymore. They got more rights than we got," Jennings added.

The governor called for the resignations of Clardy, Jennings, Manning and Hendrix.

Leslie Berger, press secretary for the Oklahoma Attorney General's Office, told NPR in an email that the office was investigating "the situation in McCurtain County."

A message sent to Jennings' district email address was not immediately returned. NPR also left a message with the McCurtain County Sheriff's Office.

The Oklahoma Sheriffs' Association, a membership group that provides training and support, said on Tuesday that its board had voted to suspend Clardy, Manning and Hendrix from the association.

The sheriff's office said the recordings were illegal and may have been altered

On Monday, the sheriff's office posted a lengthy statement to Facebook in which it said the recordings were obtained illegally and may have been altered.

"In addition to being illegally obtained, the audio does not match the 'transcription' of that audio, and is not precisely consistent with what has been put into print," the sheriff's office said.

Felony charges may be filed in the case, the sheriff's office added.

A McCurtain County Commission meeting on Monday morning was attended by dozens of protesters, including Idabel Mayor Craig Young, KOSU reported. Idabel, which is located nearly 200 miles southeast of Oklahoma City, is the seat of McCurtain County.

Young and others called for the resignations of officials who were heard speaking on the recordings.

"Listen, the story that you guys heard, it does not represent McCurtain County. We have good folks in McCurtain County. If we were so racist, it would not be such a diverse group here," Young said, according to KOSU.

"Somebody made a mistake. We're here to ask that they pay for they mistake," he added.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Hernandez
Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.