Commentary

Pardon Abuse: Deja Vu

The seemingly never-ending controversy over President Clinton’s last-minute pardons might remind old-timers of another Southern Democrat’s sudden departure from the executive mansion.

On Jan. 16, 1979, Lamar Alexander was sworn in as governor of Tennessee, three days before his scheduled inauguration, to prevent outgoing Gov. Ray Blanton from commuting the sentences of any more prisoners.

Blanton, a Democrat who had served in Congress before being elected governor in 1974, had ordered commutations or pardons for 24 convicted murderers and 28 other prisoners before his signing frenzy ended with Alexander’s surprise swearing-in. Those 52 last-minute pardons came a month after three state employees, including two members of his office legal staff, were arrested by the FBI and charged with extortion and conspiracy to sell pardons, paroles and commutations.

That scandal made Fred Thompson famous in 1977 when he represented Marie Ragghianti, former chairwoman of the state’s Pardons and Paroles Board. When she tried to blow the whistle on the money-for-pardons scheme, Blanton fired her. Thompson helped her sue for reinstatement and won. The sordid tale became a book, “Marie, A True Story,” and the 1985 film “Marie,” in which Thompson played himself and launched his film career. Given his background with Blanton and as a lawyer on the Senate Watergate committee, it’s no surprise that Thompson became one of the Clinton administration’s most tenacious critics on issues involving abuse of power and the rule of law.

The Clinton and Blanton pardons were different in many ways. Blanton’s aides apparently sold pardons and commutations for straight cash on the barrelhead, though the governor himself did not pocket any of the loot. Blanton commuted the sentences of convicted murderers, some of whom had served only a few years.

Clinton’s last-minute pardons involved a broader range of offenses against decency and good sense. His notorious pardons for Marc Rich and Pincus Green, who had fled the country and never faced trial, overshadowed many of the other outrages on the morning of Jan. 20. In his rush to the door, Clinton pardoned his brother; people associated with Whitewater and related Clinton scandals; his former Cabinet secretary, Henry Cisneros, and Cisneros’s former mistress; several people convicted of bribery involving another Clinton Cabinet member; former congressman Mel Reynolds, convicted of wire fraud, bank fraud and sex with an underage girl; a Clinton fundraiser who had embezzled clients’ money; supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Senate bid; a Democratic party activist who had embezzled money intended for the homeless; several people smart enough to hire former Clinton staffers as their lawyers; a group of female leftist bombers, one of whom told the press she was excited about resuming her activism; and a convicted defrauder currently under investigation for yet another money-laundering scheme.

A president or governor’s pardon power is unrestricted and cannot be reversed. In the Tennessee case, however, a partial remedy was at hand. The U.S. attorney informed governor-elect Alexander that the incumbent governor was selling pardons every day and urged him to take office early. The state attorney general’s office advised Alexander that it was legal for him to take the oath of office even though the formal inauguration was scheduled for three days later. As soon as Alexander was sworn in, the attorney general called Blanton to inform him that his term was over. Alexander then sent a senior staffer to lock up the state capitol. He managed to prevent Blanton’s legal counsel from leaving the building with a stack of more commutation papers to be signed by Blanton.

As in Clinton’s case, pardons were not the only legal controversies in Blanton’s tenure. Blanton and a few of his closest friends, in a classic case of regulatory abuse, decided to corner the retail liquor store market in Nashville by awarding liquor licenses only to their friends and themselves. Blanton spent nearly two years in jail for that one.

Blanton might have wished his friends had stuck with him the way Clinton’s did. Tennessee’s Democratic legislature censured him unanimously in 1978, and on the day he left office the speaker of the state House of Representatives promised to do so again as soon as the legislature reconvened.

On Jan. 22, 1979, the Washington Post editorialized, “The year is young, but we are almost ready right now to give the 1979 Award for Last-Minute Abuse of Power by an Outgoing State Executive to Ray Blanton.” The editorial concluded, “Tennesseans … can at least count themselves lucky that Tennessee law permits the moving up of the inauguration date. And they can take considerable comfort in the fact that the state’s other top Democratic officials were quick to recognize the need to limit the damage by cooperating in the effort to replace their fellow Democrat with his Republican successor as quickly as possible.”

Federal law didn’t allow us to remove Clinton a few hours early. But the Washington Post might want to dust off its award. And congressional Democrats might at least emulate their Tennessee partisans by censuring their former leader for his abuses of power.

David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, graduated from Vanderbilt University in Nashville during the Blanton years.