Saturday, February 7, 2009

Leonard Ray Blanton: pardons for a price

Photo from tennesseeencyclopedia.net

Though he dodged criminal charges while in office, Leonard Ray Blanton hardly retired in good standing and his wrongdoing as Governor of Tennessee eventually caught up with him.

Born in Hardin County in 1930, Blanton graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1951 and went on to work as a teacher and co-found a construction company. He was elected to the Tennessee house of representatives in 1964, then as a Democrat to the United States House of Representatives in 1966. He continued in that capacity in 1972, when he unsuccessfully ran for a Senate seat.

In 1974, Blanton captured the Democratic nomination for Governor of Tennessee out of a field of 12 candidates. Using the recent Watergate scandal to his advantage, he criticized his Republican opponent, Lamar Alexander, for working with the Nixon Administration (Alexander had been an executive aide to the White House congressional liaison). The tactic worked, and Blanton won the election. During his time in office, he was praised for creating the first Department of Tourism in the country and encouraging foreign investment in the state.

Those achievements, however, were overshadowed by much shadier dealings. In August of 1977, Blanton fired Marie Ragghianti, the chair of the Tennessee Board of Pardons and Paroles. The termination was ostensibly due to Ragghianti missing board meetings and overcharging the state for overtime. Ragghianti argued it was because she exposed the Governor's office for accepting bribes in exchange for prisoner clemency. Ragghianti retained attorney Fred Thompson in the matter, and in 1978 won a $38,000 settlement from the state.

Blanton announced later in the year that he would not seek re-election, and Alexander returned to win the gubernatorial race. In December, the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided the capitol following an investigation into Ragghianti's allegations that the Governor's administration was accepting bribes to reduce or commute prison sentences. Undercover agents, testing how far the administration would go, met with a bodyguard and asked how much it would take to secure the release of James Earl Ray, who had murdered civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. The bodyguard responded that Ray was too high-profile a prisoner for clemency, but it was possible that he could be allowed to escape for the right price (incidentally, Ray did escape in 1977 along with a handful of other inmates; it was unlikely to be a Blanton administration plot, however, since Blanton promptly called in the troops and Ray and his fellow fugitives were recaptured within days).

The FBI arrested T. Edward Fisk, Blanton's legal counsel, as well as extradition officer Charles Benson and Charles Frederick Taylor, a member of the security personnel. Blanton himself was called to testify before the grand jury, where he declared his innocence. Benson was later acquitted, and Fisk and Taylor were found guilty of conspiracy and sentenced to serve five years in prison.

Blanton was never charged in the clemency scandal, but made the ill-advised decision on January 15, 1979 to pardon three prisoners and reduce the sentences of 49 others, including 24 convicted murderers. Receiving the most attention was Roger Humphreys, who had murdered his ex-wife and her lover in 1973 and was not up for parole until 1984. Blanton commuted his sentence to time served. Humphreys, the son of a Blanton campaign manager, had already been subject to cushy treatment, including working as a photographer for the state. Blanton summoned Tennessee Secretary of State Gentry Crowell to his office to witness the process and, commenting on the mass clemency, said, "This takes guts." Crowell is said to have bitterly replied, "Yeah, well, some people have more guts than brains."

Blanton claimed that the pardons and commutations were meant only to reduce the prison population, but they provoked outrage. Suspecting that Blanton would pardon prisoners related to the bribery scandal, the FBI collaborated with state government officials to control the damage and have Alexander sworn into office on Jan. 17, three days ahead of schedule. Alexander said he did not think there was anything he could do about the eleventh-hour clemencies, and a state court of criminal appeals later upheld all of them.

The clemency scandal was not the only accusation facing Blanton. In the time leading up to his ignominious exit from office, he had been accused of selling used state vehicles to family and friends for a fraction of their value, rigging bids for road projects, putting his girlfriend on the payroll of a regional commission, and using the state's Lear jet for travel instead of selling it as promised.

Blanton was also accused of granting 12 licenses to liquor stores run by political allies during his time as Governor in exchange for a kickback of a portion of their income. That charge stuck. In June 1981, he was convicted of conspiracy, extortion, and mail fraud. Blanton was sentenced to serve three years in prison and pay an $11,000 fine. The conviction was overturned on appeal in 1983, but reinstated the same year. Blanton began serving his prison sentence in 1984. While behind bars, the movie Marie premiered. Based on a book detailing Marie Ragghianti's exposure of corruption in Blanton's government, it starred Fred Thompson as himself and marked his first role as an actor. Thompson later went on to become a U.S. Senator for Tennessee.

Released after 22 months, Blanton began working as a radio commentator and used car salesman. His citizenship rights were restored in 1987, and in 1988 he made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination to replace a retiring Congressman. Fighting to clear his name in the courts, he was successful in getting a federal court to overturn the mail fraud charges in 1988.

Blanton died of kidney disease in 1996. Alexander became the first Tennessee Governor to be elected to a second four-year term in 1982, then went on to be a Secretary of Education under George H.W. Bush. In 2002, he was elected to the U.S. Senate (replacing Thompson) and is currently serving in that capacity.

Sources: National Governors Association, the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, "A Story of Pardons" in the Evening Independent on Jan. 18 1979, "New Tenn. Governor Tries to Block Stormy Pardons" in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Jan. 19 1979, "Blanton's Pardons Upheld" in the Washington Post on April 11 1979, "Ex-Tennessee Governor Sentenced to 3 Years" in the New York Times on August 15 1981, "Ex-Gov. Blanton's Comeback Derailed in Tennessee Race" in the Washington Post on Aug. 5 1988, "Blanton Verdict in Tennessee Upset" in the New York Times on Feb. 12, 1983, "Conviction is Reinstated for Ex-Gov. Blanton" in the New York Times on April 8, 1983, "Blanton Starts Jail Term" in the New York Times on July 4 1984, "At the Movies" in the New York Times on Sept. 27 1985, "Blanton's Rights Restored" in the New York Times on Oct. 22 1987, "Mail Fraud Conviction of Blanton Dismissed" in the New York Times on Jan. 31 1988, "Ray Blanton, 66, Ex-Governor Ousted in a Tennessee Scandal" in the New York Times on Nov. 23 1996, "Bringing Down the Corrupt" in the Concord Monitor on Dec. 12 2007, The Rise of the States: Evolution of American State Government by John C. Teaford,

5 comments:

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Anonymous said...

I was 23 in '77 and lived in Cleveland, TN. It was common knowledge that a bag containing 10k could get anyone out of prison. There was a restaurant chain called Sambo's where drops were made.

Anonymous said...

Well in 1977 i was sitting in my friends car as his dad was being killed so he couldn't testify against Ray

Leah Bland said...

I was a 25 yr. old woman,never having known my Mother,my Daddy was my WORLD!BTW,I was the "Only Child".The "Governer",Ray Blanton,due to his Greed,Lack of Decency,Respect For The Ofc. He was sworn to Uphold.Allowed several to go free and that's a travesty,as ONE of those set free hired a "HIT" on my Daddy!To date theres NOT been ONE conviction RE:This case!Thanks,GOVERNOR!LOL!!!

Johnny West said...

One of the men the governor released had the last name of Bruce. In 1991 him and his brothers murdered two people after robbing them in Camden, TN. You can find a video about the murders on YouTube called: Forensic Files - Season 11, Ep 25: Shell Game