District No. 1 State Representative Eddy Dempsey hosted a town hall meeting at Idabel City Hall on Wednesday which was dominated by questions regarding the McCurtain County Sheriff’s Office and Sheriff Kevin Clardy.
This newspaper released audio recordings in April of Clardy, Captain Alicia Manning, Jail Administrator Larry Hendrix and former District 2 County Commissioner Mark Jennings allegedly discussing killing McCurtain Gazette reporters, making racially charged comments and many other controversial statements.
Dempsey, who had called for these official’s resignations following the release, was noted by those present at the meeting to have backtracked on that statement. Dempsey acknowledged those comments, stating that that was due to the investigations that were currently underway and some information that had been shared with him.
“I’m not the judge and jury,” Dempsey said.
Many at the meeting expressed dissatisfaction with what they characterized as the slow pace of state officials response to the audio recordings, with one guest saying that they felt that the Attorney General’s Office had “failed” the community by not proceeding more quickly.
Dempsey seemed to sympathize with that statement.
“If I could speed up a state agency, this county wouldn’t have road problems,” he said, noting that Attorney General Gentner Drummond’s investigation into the recordings was a slow process.
He also repeatedly stated that he did not know the answers to several of the audience’s questions, including queries about the procedure to remove elected officials, other controversial cases involving the MCSO and the McCurtain County Jail, and subjects related to law enforcement oversight.
Dempsey was asked if he had spoken to Clardy since the recordings were released. Other than a public statement from the MCSO claiming that the audio released by the newspaper had been altered and that it was investigating, the office or Clardy have largely been silent on the matter.
Clardy, Manning and Hendrix have not resigned from their positions following the release. Hendrix was placed on paid leave by the McCurtain County Jail Trust following the release.
Dempsey confirmed that he had spoken with Clardy and said that the sheriff still maintained his innocence but that Clardy did not deny that his was one of the voices on the recordings.
But when asked what he would have done had he been on the recording, making such statements, Dempsey said he “wouldn’t be working for you no more,” implying he would have stepped down.
Attendees at the meeting expressed frustration with some of Dempsey’s answers (one woman, when Dempsey said he did not know the process of removing an elected county official, told him to “learn”), and urged him to do all in his power to speed up the process.
Multiple attendees noted that the community had lost trust in the Sheriff’s department, the primary source of law enforcement in McCurtain County outside of city limits.
In response, Dempsey noted that the Oklahoma Highway Patrol maintained officers in the county, but attendees said that when OHP arrested someone the suspects were taken “to the same jail” as those arrested by the MCSO.
He noted that he had limited authority to take actions at county level, noting that all he could really do to speed up the investigation, etc. was to “have conversations.” But he pledged to “start making those phone calls” as soon as the town hall concluded.
Dempsey was also asked about his personal relationship with Clardy, with one attendee noting that he was “friends with these people.”
Dempsey did not deny this, but said he could separate friendship and business.
Other questions at the meeting included inquiries about Dempsey’s relationship with an individual suing the county in regard to the recently-passed lodging tax to support the construction of a new facility for McCurtain Memorial Hospital and about his “yes” vote for a recent bill that included tax breaks for parents of children in private schools.
Dempsey acknowledged communication with one of the people involved in the county lawsuit, but said that communication with local residents was part of his role as a representative.
He also maintained that the school bill was a much better deal than the State Senate had proposed, saying that a voucher program would not be good for the state’s schools and that the bill he signed included tax breaks for public school parents as well.
He noted that his district did not contain any private schools.