Pardon Abuse: Deja Vu

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The seemingly never-ending controversy over President Clinton's last-minutepardons might remind old-timers of another Southern Democrat's suddendeparture 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. RayBlanton from commuting the sentences of any more prisoners.

Blanton, a Democrat who had served in Congress before being elected governorin 1974, had ordered commutations or pardons for 24 convicted murderers and28 other prisoners before his signing frenzy ended with Alexander's surpriseswearing-in. Those 52 last-minute pardons came a month after three stateemployees, including two members of his office legal staff, were arrested bythe FBI and charged with extortion and conspiracy to sell pardons, parolesand commutations.

That scandal made Fred Thompson famous in 1977 when he represented MarieRagghianti, former chairwoman of the state's Pardons and Paroles Board.When she tried to blow the whistle on the money-for-pardons scheme, Blantonfired her. Thompson helped her sue for reinstatement and won. The sordidtale became a book, "Marie, A True Story," and the 1985 film "Marie," inwhich Thompson played himself and launched his film career. Given hisbackground with Blanton and as a lawyer on the Senate Watergate committee,it's no surprise that Thompson became one of the Clinton administration'smost tenacious critics on issues involving abuse of power and the rule oflaw.

The Clinton and Blanton pardons were different in many ways. Blanton'saides apparently sold pardons and commutations for straight cash on thebarrelhead, though the governor himself did not pocket any of the loot.Blanton commuted the sentences of convicted murderers, some of whom hadserved only a few years.

Clinton's last-minute pardons involved a broader range of offenses againstdecency and good sense. His notorious pardons for Marc Rich and PincusGreen, who had fled the country and never faced trial, overshadowed many ofthe other outrages on the morning of Jan. 20. In his rush to the door,Clinton pardoned his brother; people associated with Whitewater and relatedClinton scandals; his former Cabinet secretary, Henry Cisneros, and Cisneros's former mistress; several people convicted of bribery involving anotherClinton Cabinet member; former congressman Mel Reynolds, convicted of wirefraud, bank fraud and sex with an underage girl; a Clinton fundraiser whohad embezzled clients' money; supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senatebid; a Democratic party activist who had embezzled money intended for thehomeless; several people smart enough to hire former Clinton staffers astheir lawyers; a group of female leftist bombers, one of whom told the pressshe was excited about resuming her activism; and a convicted defraudercurrently under investigation for yet another money-laundering scheme.

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

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

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

On Jan. 22, 1979, the Washington Post editorialized, "The year is young, butwe are almost ready right now to give the 1979 Award for Last-Minute Abuseof Power by an Outgoing State Executive to Ray Blanton." The editorialconcluded, "Tennesseans . . . can at least count themselves lucky thatTennessee law permits the moving up of the inauguration date. And they cantake considerable comfort in the fact that the state's other top Democraticofficials were quick to recognize the need to limit the damage bycooperating in the effort to replace their fellow Democrat with hisRepublican successor as quickly as possible."

Federal law didn't allow us to remove Clinton a few hours early. But theWashington Post might want to dust off its award. And congressionalDemocrats might at least emulate their Tennessee partisans by censuringtheir former leader for his abuses of power.

David Boaz

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