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Jewish World Review Feb. 15, 2001 / 22 Shevat, 5761

John H. Fund

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In 1978 Clinton got a close look at the dangers of selling forgiveness -- A CHIEF executive from the South, long protected by powerful friends in the media, is leaving office under suspicion that he or his aides are selling pardons. His critics have been smeared or fired if they opposed him. The voters breathe a sign of relief as his Republican successor is sworn into office and investigations of the questionable pardons accelerate.

While the story has some resemblance to President Clinton's leave-taking, the pardon scandal involved another Southern governor, Ray Blanton of Tennessee. It caused Gov. Blanton to be stripped of his office as his only term as governor ended in 1978. His office door was nailed shut to ensure that evidence wasn't removed, and Lamar Alexander, his elected successor, was sworn into office three days early to keep more pardons from being issued.

Days after this denouement, 32-year-old Bill Clinton took the oath of office for his first term as governor of Arkansas. Mr. Clinton was well aware of the uproar the Blanton case had caused, which makes his friends all the more shocked and puzzled at his controversial pardon of fugitive billionaire Marc Rich. Outrage is building as we also learn about his pardons of a notorious California drug dealer and a Florida businessman currently under federal investigation for fraud.

Ray Blanton was born dirt poor in rural Tennessee in 1930, but his folksy charm and ambition got him elected to Congress in 1966. In 1974 he eked out a victory in the Democratic primary for governor with 23% of the vote in a field of a dozen candidates. In the general election, the stench of Watergate allowed him to win a landslide over his Republican opponent, Mr. Alexander, who would become governor four years later.

Ethical trouble in the fast-and-loose Blanton administration began early but was downplayed by the local media. But by 1977, Marie Ragghianti, chairman of the state's Board of Pardons and Paroles, was getting worried. She finally refused to release some felons who were later proved to have bought their freedom by bribing Blanton aides. Mr. Blanton summarily fired her and then set his media friends upon her, smearing her reputation.

Ms. Ragghianti eventually hired Fred Thompson, the Republican counsel for the Senate's Watergate committee, as her lawyer to file a suit challenging her dismissal. In July 1978, a jury found that Mr. Blanton had fired her "arbitrarily and capriciously," ordered her reinstatement and awarded her $38,000 in back pay.

Hollywood made a 1985 movie about the case called "Marie," starring Sissy Spacek in the title role. Mr. Thompson convinced the producers that with his booming voice and Bluegrass drawl he was the perfect candidate to play himself. The film's success launched a part-time movie career that eventually helped him win election to the U.S. Senate in 1994.

Sen. Thompson vividly recalls how the pardon scandal picked up steam in late 1978 as Gov. Blanton, who had not sought re-election, was winding down his term. On Dec. 14 the governor held a Christmas party at which his staff presented him with a present: a metallic-blue Lincoln Continental. Reporters immediately began to wonder why he could get such an extravagant gift.

The next day, FBI agents swarmed into the Capitol in Nashville and seized hundreds of documents on pardons and clemency actions. Shortly thereafter, the FBI announced the arrest of the governor's legal counsel, his chief extradition officer and a state trooper assigned to Gov. Blanton. A week later, the governor appeared before a federal grand jury and declared his innocence. "I never took a dishonest dollar in my life."

Pressure mounted for Gov. Blanton to be removed early and reached a fever pitch late on Jan. 15, 1979, after he finished a three-hour meeting with the announcement he had granted clemency to 52 inmates. His explanation? He was under a court order to reduce overcrowding in the state prisons.

One of the freed inmates, Roger Humphreys, was serving a 20- to 40-year sentence for murder. The son of a Blanton political crony, he had pumped 18 bullets from a two-shot Derringer into his former wife and her boyfriend. Mr. Blanton called him "an outstanding, fine young man" and arranged for him to work outside prison as a state photographer. On Jan. 15 he signed Mr. Humphrey's release papers in office with a rhetorical flourish: "This takes guts." At that point, his secretary of state, Gentry Crowell, piped up: "Some people have more guts than brains."

The Humphreys case infuriated Tennessee's political establishment. Then on Jan. 17, three days before Gov. Blanton's term expired, U.S. Attorney Hal Hardin, a Democratic appointee, called Gov.-elect Alexander to tell him that Gov. Blanton was preparing papers to free as many as 18 more prisoners. After a hurried series of meetings between Mr. Alexander and top legislative leaders, it was decided to quickly swear the new governor in early. The ceremony took place at dinner time on live television in the offices of the state Supreme Court. Gov. Alexander told the state that he had agreed to be sworn in early because there was "substantial reason to believe" Gov. Blanton was preparing to release some targets of the grand jury investigation into the pardon scandal.

Two Blanton aides were eventually convicted of selling pardons, while a third was acquitted. It turned out that Mr. Blanton himself had never profited from the sale of pardons. He was later indicted and convicted for selling a liquor license in exchange for forgiveness of a $40,000 debt; he served two years in federal prison. A year and a half after his 1986 release, he ran for Congress again but lost. He died in 1996, still protesting his innocence.

The Blanton scandal was that rare case when investigators were actually able to prove a quid pro quo for pardons had taken place. Such clear evidence is very hard to obtain, which is why the Clinton pardon scandal is likely to peter out legally absent a witness turning state's evidence.

Even so, one of the most enduring legacies of the Clinton years may be that the first couple defined decency in Washington down to the point that researchers had to unearth old scandals by a tawdry governor to come up with a close parallel for his behavior.

Comment on JWR contributor John H. Fund's column by clicking here.


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©2001, John H. Fund