Ray Blanton was a successful politician and he served in the Tennessee legislature, Congress, and as Governor of Tennessee. He served as Governor from 1975 to 1979.
Blanton, a Democrat, was not a very popular Governor, but that was not his real problem – corruption was. His administration began to unravel in 1977 when he fired the Chair of Tennessee’s Board of Pardons and Paroles Marie Ragghianti. She had earned his ire when she refused to release some prisoners because she suspected them of bribing state officials in exchange for obtaining pardons.
Ragghianti did not accept her firing graciously. She informed the FBI of her suspicions. On December 15, 1978, the FBI raided state offices in Nashville and seized documents implicating Blanton’s legal advisor, T. Edward Sisk. Based on what they found, the FBI arrested Sisk and two others. Blanton was also suspected. On December 23, the Governor was compelled to testify before a federal grand jury concerning the matter. He denied any wrongdoing.
Another issue arose when Blanton publically stated that he intended to commute the sentence of Roger Humphreys. Humphreys, the son of a Blanton political crony, was convicted of double murder in 1973. When the media and political leaders – including important Democrats like John Jay Hooker – criticized Blanton for the proposed commutation, the Governor became angry. Then Blanton made a petty move designed to get back at his critics. On January 15, 1979, citing a court order to reduce Tennessee’s prison population, Blanton commuted the sentences of Humphreys and fifty-one other prisoners – twenty of whom were murderers. As Blanton signed the commutation order for Humphreys he said, “This takes guts.” Tennessee Secretary of State Gentry Crowell, who was appalled by Blanton’s flaunting of his power replied, “Some people have more guts than brains.”
[Oddly, years later, Crowell was implicated in an unrelated scandal and he committed suicide in 1989 before being brought to justice.]
The commutations became a national joke. There was even a hit record produced called Pardon Me Ray making fun of the Governor and the pardon scandal.
Blanton’s critics were angry and embarrassed by the commutations. Then United States Attorney Hal Hardin passed on word to lawmakers that the Governor had told him that he planned more commutations – including possibly Martin Luther King’s murderer, James Earl Ray. Armed with this information – and desperate to end the ordeal – Tennessee’s leading elected officials sought some way to head off the Blanton.
Tennessee Senate Speaker (and Lieutenant Governor) John S. Wilder and House Speaker Ned Ray McWherter (both Democrats) reviewed the Tennessee Constitution and found that they could swear in the new Governor, Lamar Alexander (a Republican), before the traditional inauguration date. This being the case, they swore Alexander three days early. A relieved Wilder called the early swearing in “impeachment Tennessee-style.”
Blanton condemned his ouster, but he had more important problems. While federal authorities never charged Blanton in the parole scandal, they did charge and convict him of mail fraud, conspiracy, and extortion for illegally selling liquor licenses. He served 22 months in federal prison.
Sources: “Leonard Ray Blanton.” Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, 2009. “ Blanton Demands Convict’s Release.” Indiana Evening Gazette. 23 Jan 1979. Bill Rose, “The Hillbilly Nixon”. St. Petersburg Evening Independent, 23 January 1979. United States v. Blanton , 700 F.2d 298 (6th Cir. 1983).
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