Thirty-one years ago this month, former Tennessee Gov. Leonard Ray Blanton was convicted of mail fraud, conspiracy and extortion for selling liquor licenses. He had been exposed as being part of a scheme that controlled or forced kickbacks from Nashville liquor store owners. His next 22 months would be spent in a federal penitentiary.
While most recalling Blanton today remember his alleged involvement in selling pardons, he was never implicated on charges of that nature — although some of his key advisors were convicted in that scheme. He is also remembered for unceremoniously being removed from office three days early in a move then-Lt. Gov. John Wilder famously called, “Impeachment, Tennessee style.”
Keel Hunt, founder and principal of The Strategy Group, will later this year publish a much-anticipated book about the day that had a seismic impact on Tennessee politics.
In 1978, Hunt left his job as city editor for The Tennessean to join the gubernatorial campaign of Lamar Alexander. After winning, Alexander appointed Hunt to the position of special assistant to the governor for research and planning.
For years, Hunt has looked back to the early departure of Blanton and the rise of Alexander and has been in awe of how decisions were made and party lines faded into a cooperative effort to stabilize Tennessee politics. Hunt eventually acted on his sense of history and has shared with the Post a few tidbits of what has happened to some key figures of that era.
Ray Blanton: After prison, Blanton was employed by a Ford dealership in Henderson, Tenn. He attempted a political comeback in 1988 by running for the U.S. Congressional seat being vacated by retiring Rep. Ed Jones. He garnered only 7 percent of the vote in the Democratic Primary. He died on Nov. 22, 1996, and is buried at Shiloh Church in Hardin County.
T. Edward “Eddie” Sisk: Blanton’s legal counsel was convicted of racketeering in relation to the pardons scandal and served time at the federal prison in Marion, Ill. He returned to Nashville upon release, where he lives today, and is employed by a mattress store.
Hal Hardin: The U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee from 1977 until 1981 is now a prominent criminal defense attorney in the region and teaches classes at Nashville School of Law.
Lamar Alexander: A two-term governor, former president of the University of Tennessee and former U.S. Secretary of Education, he is now a U.S. senator for Tennessee.
William “Bill” Koch: At the time of the Blanton crisis, Koch was one of six senior deputy attorneys general for the state. He was part of the legal team charged with finding a justification for removing Blanton from office. Alexander appointed him to the Tennessee Court of Appeals in 1984, and he was elevated to the Tennessee Supreme Court by Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2007, where he is today.
Carol Marin: A well-known TV reporter at WSMV, to whom Blanton told in an 1977 interview that he would pardon Roger Humphreys, a man convicted of murdering his wife and her boyfriend. The interview is widely credited for kindling the flames that would engulf the Blanton administration. She left Nashville in June of 1978 for a Chicago NBC affiliate and is now a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Roger Humphreys: The convicted murderer pardoned by Blanton on Jan. 15, 1979, was released that night after he already had packed his bags. According to Hunt, upon walking out into the cold night that evening, Humphreys looked at his attorney and said, “I am dreaming.” He has not been seen since.