Former Tennessee governor Ray Blanton, 66, who was ousted from office three days early in a "cash-for-clemency" scandal that was one of the biggest in Tennessee history and inspired the movie "Marie," died Nov. 22 at a hospital here after a heart attack. He had a liver ailment.
Gov. Blanton (D) served in office from 1975 to 1979. His term as governor ended abruptly in the waning days of his term, after he pardoned and commuted the prison terms of 52 state inmates.
In the resultant outrage, Gov. Blanton's fellow Democrats in the state legislature joined forces with Republicans to move up the date of his successor's inauguration by three days. Lamar Alexander, a Republican, was then sworn in.
Gov. Blanton, a former three-term congressman, was never charged in the clemency scandal, but three aides were. In 1981, he was convicted of unrelated charges of extortion and conspiracy for selling a liquor license for $23,000 to a friend while in office. He served 22 months in a federal prison.
The charges against Gov. Blanton's aides came in December 1978. They were accused of accepting money in exchange for approving paroles for prisoners. But Gov. Blanton continued issuing pardons even after those charges were brought, resulting in the change in the inauguration date.
Two of the three aides eventually were convicted and sentenced to prison, but the third was acquitted.
In 1985, the movie "Marie" was made about the release of the prisoners and included Fred Thompson, now a Republican senator from Tennessee. Thompson played himself as a lawyer representing Marie Ragghianti, chairwoman of the state parole board, who tried to blow the whistle on the corruption.
As recently as August, Gov. Blanton said he would never stop trying to prove his innocence.
"I never took a dishonest dollar in my life. I was the only governor to ever leave office broke. That should tell you something," he said.
On the other hand, Gov. Blanton was the first Tennessee governor to recruit industry from overseas, paving the way for Nissan Motor Co., of Japan, to locate a light-truck assembly plant in Tennessee in 1980, early in his successor's term.
Gov. Blanton, was born in Hardin County, Tenn., and grew up on a farm. He received a degree in agriculture from the University of Tennessee. He taught school in Indiana, then returned to Tennessee, where he helped start a family construction company.
He ran unopposed for a seat in the state House of Representatives in 1964, and two years later, he was elected to the U.S. House after denying Rep. Tom Murray (D) renomination in West Tennessee's 7th Congressional District.
He was reelected in 1968 and 1970, retiring from the House in 1972 to run as the Democratic nominee against Republican Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. Gov. Blanton was defeated by a 2 to 1 ratio but built the political organization that carried him to victory as governor two years later. He won the Democratic nomination with 23 percent of the vote in a 12-candidate race and defeated Alexander in the November election. Gov. Blanton opted not to run for a second term in 1978.
After his release from prison, he became a radio commentator and sold prefabricated metal buildings. He kept a low public profile except for some court appearances as he tried to clear his name with appeals.
Last summer, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati turned down his request to get the conviction reversed. The panel upheld a lower court ruling that had rejected his argument that he had been ineffectively represented by the attorney who handled his trial.