A recorded conversation from late April features Oklahoma County Clerk David Hooten claiming he is “genetically altered” so that he “doesn’t get drunk no matter what” while describing a work training he was scheduling for himself and female employees that would involve drinking, gambling and facing their “biggest fears.”
Within minutes of Hooten ending his April 26 meeting, the conversation was reported to the county’s Human Resources Department by one of Hooten’s employees. Days later, it was reported to the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office, which conducted an investigation.
Although the proposed work trip, which had been scheduled for May 6, ultimately did not occur because employees vocalized their concerns to other county officials, clips of the audio recording were published Thursday by News 9‘s Storme Jones:
“There will be alcohol involved, meaning we will drink,” David Hooten told his employees in audio obtained by @NEWS9. “We will do things. We will gamble. We will do a bunch of things. Some will be fun. Some will be scary.” pic.twitter.com/h2DbqPEA7L
— Storme Jones (@StormeJones) June 9, 2022
The situation has shaken up the statewide race less than three weeks before the Republican primary election, but it has also generated new interest in Hooten’s past behavior and his time serving in elected office.
David Hooten: ‘They gave me a chemical that changes your brain’
In the recording, Hooten outlines what he now describes as a proposed “team-building” exercise for certain employees.
“There will be alcohol involved, meaning we will drink. We will do things. We will gamble. We will do a bunch of things. Some will be fun, some will be scary, but the whole point is it’s going to take us out of your comfort level and at the end you’ll have felt like you endured something,” Hooten can be heard saying on the recording. “And just so you all know, I’ve been genetically altered so I don’t get drunk no matter what. They gave me a chemical that changes your brain, because I travel in Europe, and so it actually won’t have an effect on me. But hopefully it has an effect on you all.”
In the recording — a full transcript is listed at the end of this article — Hooten says he will check with his office’s legal counsel to determine whether employees would need to sign waivers for the trip.
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater told NonDoc that his office civilly represents the Oklahoma County Clerk’s Office in an official capacity, but Prater said nothing regarding the trip was run by his office.
“It absolutely is not appropriate,” Prater said of Hooten’s recorded remarks and proposed work exercise that would have involved alcohol and gambling.
Prater said he reviewed information provided by Oklahoma County Sheriff Tommie Johnson’s office, which received the audio recording from one of Hooten’s employees.
“The behavior that was reported did not violate Oklahoma criminal statues,” Prater said.
Hooten answered questions about the audio recording Friday morning. He told NonDoc that he had been trying to take a team-building trip with his employees for five years because they’re “constantly fighting and they always have issues.” He said the plan was to make his employees think they were going to be facing their greatest fears, which he said include flying, drinking alcohol and snakes. But Hooten claimed that the actual trip planned for May 6 only would have involved going to lunch and visiting iFLY Indoor Skydiving.
“Ultimately, I am doing everything I can to save these people’s jobs,” Hooten said. “They cannot fight with each other or not trust me and work for me. They don’t take direction. They won’t show up to work. They literally have their own hours, and that is an issue with me.”
Hooten attributed the release of the audio and subsequent media coverage to Election Day being June 28.
“It’s so amazing to me that everyone is reporting about something that never happened. About three weeks before an election day, everyone has something to say about you, and everyone wants to turn it a certain way,” Hooten said, then referencing News 9 journalist Storme Jones. “I understand why Storme Jones is doing it. It makes him more popular because he’s picking at the best and most honest elected official in the state, and that’s what he’s going to do to try to make a name, and I understand that.”
‘We’re getting fed to the wolves here’
Two of the employees present during the April 26 meeting agreed to speak with NonDoc on the condition of anonymity and said they left the 9 a.m. meeting uncomfortable, as the conversation immediately threw up “red flags.” They said one of them went to the Human Resources Department to file a complaint right after the meeting ended.
The employee who made the recording said she did not provide the audio to News 9, but that she did provide it to the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office and the county’s HR department.
“Nobody is doing anything for us,” one of the employees said. “We’re getting fed to the wolves here. We come to work. We hide in our office. It’s crazy.”
The women said HR has been aware of personnel problems within the office for some time and that nobody has done anything about what they allege is a toxic work environment.
“This team building — getting us drunk — event was his solution to that problem,” one of the employees said.
The employee who took the recording said the consistent problems within the office are what compelled her to record the April 26 meeting.
“I was so uncomfortable,” the employee said. “I was put in such a toxic environment that I didn’t feel comfortable, and unfortunately I needed it.”
When asked if he would have handled the conversation about the required work trip differently in retrospect, Hooten said “absolutely not.”
“What you have to do with that kind of situation is they have to confront their fears,” Hooten said. “You’re not bothering them, you’re not making them do anything. You’re taking them to a place where it will change their outcome because the outcome hasn’t been changed in five years. It’s used all the time in corporate America. It may not be used in government, but I stand by everything I did.”
Hooten has faced controversy before
A trumpet player who has been nominated for a Grammy and an Emmy, Hooten has been the subject of controversy in the past.
In 2014, Hooten’s unsuccessful campaign for State Senate District 40 upended when it was reported that Hooten had left the scene of an accident and was charged with DUI in 2001. Hooten pleaded guilty to the DUI and the charge of leaving the scene of an accident. He was sentenced to community service.
There are other controversial chapters as well. In 2004, Hooten ran for the Oklahoma House of Representatives as a Democrat. But his name was later struck from the ballot by the Oklahoma State Election Board when his opponent claimed that Hooten was not properly registered, and a subsequent investigation proved that to be true.
Hooten became Oklahoma County clerk in 2016 after defeating incumbent Carolyn Caudill in a runoff, and later a libertarian opponent in the general election. (Caudill had her own DUI in 2013 while in office.)
Not long after Hooten took office, he found himself in hot water when a handful of county employees filed wrongful termination suits against him after they were fired. Those who filed suit claimed they were fired because of their support for Hooten’s opponent. In late 2018, the county paid $175,000 to one of the employees, Leona Porter, who alleged that Hooten had made her sit in a rocking chair and serve as a greeter. Porter was later fired by Hooten.
“What he did to me was awful. (…) It was humiliating. It was awful. It was degrading,” Porter told The Oklahoman in 2016.
The cases of the other four employees were eventually dismissed in federal court.
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Transcript of the David Hooten recording
In the recording obtained by News 9 and subsequently NonDoc, Hooten mentions that the DNA in his brain has been altered so he can no longer get drunk.
While the statement is bizarre, there are some drugs that have been introduced in recent years to reduce the craving of alcohol. Among them are Naltrexone, which blocks the pleasurable effects of alcohol in the brain. Another drug, Disulfiram does not reduce cravings of alcohol for the user, but it does induce strong side effects like headaches and nausea if the user consumes alcohol while on the drug.
A transcription of the audio recording appears below, with a small number of redactions made so as not to reveal the identities of others in the room.
David Hooten: So, over the last five years, I’ve been trying to do a thing, a team-building thing with you all, you didn’t know about this stuff, but we’ve never managed to do it. We now have it scheduled, and it’s on the books. Everyone has to attend. Umm, I will check with legal counsel as far as a waiver that you might need to sign to do it.
I’m not going to tell you what we’re going to do, but we’re going to do a bunch of things that may seem strange. But the whole purpose of the whole thing, it’s about trust, and it’s about taking you to your limits as far as what your fears are, and I’m going to take you to the edge of what it is, and we’re going to do things that no one normally does. Umm.
Everything we’re going to do, I’ve done numerous times. No one’s ever gotten hurt. No one’s ever had a problem. You will be sore the next day, I mean, because you’re going to do some stuff that’s very physical. And literally, your body will be hurting the next day. It will be something that you’ve never felt before because you’re going to use muscles you’ve never used before.
There will be alcohol involved, meaning we will drink. We will do things. We will gamble. We will do a bunch of things. Some will be fun, some will be scary, but the whole point is it’s going to take us all about out of your comfort level, and we’re going to — at the end, you will have felt like you endured something, and you went through an event together that you’ve never done before, and that’s really important, because that’s how this works.
I’ve done it hundreds of times with employees, boards of directors. No one’s ever gotten hurt. No one has ever walked away without smiling. But I want you to understand that, you know, it’s going to be a pretty big day. You’ll need to wear tennis shoes and slacks. Don’t wear a dress. Be comfortable. Umm. At one point, you’ll have to take off all your jewelry and stuff and we’ll put it in a locker. And, other than that, is that alright with all of you?
Employee: That’s fine.
Second employee: (Quietly, after being prompted.) Yeah.
Hooten: You’ve got to think of it — remember, it’s all about trust. You’ve got to trust me that I know what I’m doing.
Employee: I trust you.
Hooten: And I trust you guys that in the end you will understand that this is really, really cool, and it will be something you’ll tell your grandchildren about. OK? We’re all good? Alright.
I’ll have the thing squared away ready for you all to sign on Monday for you if I need to. I don’t know that I necessarily need to, but since we’re going to drink, that may be something different.
And just so you all know, I’ve been, umm, genetically altered so I don’t get drunk no matter what. They gave me a chemical that changes your brain, and actually — because I travel in Europe — and so it actually won’t have an effect on me. But hopefully it has an effect on y’all.
Employee: What date is this going to be on?
Hooten: (Back chatter) The sixth, and we’ll leave here probably nine or 10 o’clock. We’ll get back here by five o’clock.
Employee: What day is that?
Hooten: It’s a Friday.
Employee: We’ll get back at what time?
Hooten: Probably five. Maybe earlier. It matters how we do —
Employee: How many people?
Hooten: How many people? The four of us, that’s all. OK? Alright.
Employee: Thank you.
Hooten: Thank you.
(Correction: This article was updated at 8:13 p.m. Tuesday, June 14, to correct reference to Leona Porter. NonDoc regrets the error.)