Oklahoma’s attorney general said on Friday that a sheriff who was caught on a recording as other county officials discussed killing journalists and Black people would not face criminal charges but suggested that the governor endorse another candidate in the next election.
The attorney general, Gentner Drummond, said in a letter to Gov. Kevin Stitt that he had not found evidence that the sheriff of McCurtain County, Kevin Clardy, had committed a criminal act or found any legal grounds to remove him from office.
“There are countless examples of incidents from across the country where public officials make inflammatory comments that spark severe condemnation,” Mr. Drummond wrote. “Regardless, there is no provision of law in Oklahoma to throw elected officials out of office merely for saying something offensive.”
Mr. Stitt, a Republican, had called in April for the resignations of Sheriff Clardy and three other county officials who were part of the recorded conversation: a sheriff’s office investigator, Alicia Manning; the county jail administrator, Larry Hendrix; and a county commissioner, Mark Jennings.
Mr. Jennings resigned.
Mr. Hendrix was placed on paid administrative leave in May, The McCurtain Gazette-News reported. His current status was not immediately clear and he could not be reached for comment on Friday night. Ms. Manning also could not be reached. Sheriff Clardy could not be reached on Friday, and his office said that he would release a statement next week.
Bruce Willingham, the publisher and editor of The Gazette-News, which posted audio from the recording in April, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday.
The small newspaper in rural Oklahoma published a secret recording of what it said was an illegal public meeting that took place in March that involved Sheriff Clardy and the other county officials.
According to the transcript posted by the newspaper, Mr. Jennings talked about hanging Black people by a creek.
“But you can’t do that anymore,” he said, according to the transcript. “They got more rights than we got.”
Mr. Jennings, Sheriff Clardy and Ms. Manning also complained about Mr. Willingham and his son, Christopher Willingham, a reporter for The Gazette-News, according to the newspaper.
Christopher Willingham sued Sheriff Clardy, Ms. Manning and the board of county commissioners, claiming that he had been slandered in retaliation for an eight-part investigative series he wrote about the sheriff’s office in 2021 and 2022.
“I know where two big deep holes are here if you ever need them,” Mr. Jennings said on the recording, according to the transcript.
The sheriff responded: “I’ve got an excavator.”
Mr. Jennings replied: “Well, these are already pre-dug.”
When the newspaper published the recording, it touched off shock and anger in the county of about 31,000 residents in the southeastern corner of Oklahoma, and across the country.
Protesters demanded that the officials resign.
“Our community is not so racist and so divided,” Mayor Craig Young of Idabel, Okla., the county seat, said during a protest at the time. “We’re not like that. They don’t speak for our community.”
The sheriff’s office argued that the recording had violated state law because it had been made without the consent of at least one of the parties involved.
But Mr. Willingham said he had consulted with lawyers who assured him that the recording was legal as long as the officials were talking about public business.
Mr. Drummond, a Republican, said neither he nor the governor had the authority to remove Sheriff Clardy from office.
He suggested that the governor’s endorsement of another candidate in the next election would help, noting that Mr. Stitt had “demonstrated a formidable ability” to back winning candidates.
“There remains but one authority to remove a duly elected county official who has broken no law: the People of Oklahoma,” he wrote. “The voters of McCurtain County will have the final say over who will serve them as sheriff.”
A representative for the governor could not immediately be reached for comment on Friday night.