Posted on January 16, 2019
The call came shortly before noon.
On one end of the line was Hal Hardin, the 37-year-old U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee, calling from his office inside the Estes Kefauver Federal Building in Nashville.
At the other end of the line inside a private office in Green Hills was Lamar Alexander, a 38-year-old lawyer who was just days away from being sworn in as Tennessee’s 45th governor.
Hardin told Alexander he was not calling him in his capacity as the U.S. attorney but as a Tennessean. Hardin said he thought it was an obligation of the U.S. attorney to tell state officials about criminal activity that may affect it.
“I said, 'I think you’ve got to take office early in order to stop what’s going on,'” Hardin, a self-described yellow dog Democrat, recalled urging the East Tennessee Republican.
That initial conversation on Jan. 17, 1979, was brief, but over the course of the next six hours, resulted in an unprecedented effort to remove then-Gov. Ray Blanton from office.
It was nothing short of a coup.
Successes outweighed by scandals
On Jan. 19, Gov. Bill Haslam will hand off power to Williamson County businessman Bill Lee, who will become Tennessee's 50th governor.
Lee’s inauguration comes about 40 years since an unbelievable set of circumstances led to the early swearing in of Alexander.
There was a last-minute, late-night session granting clemency to questionable and controversial prisoners. There was an ongoing FBI investigation into suspected clemency for cash that seeped into the governor’s office.
Long before all that, there was Blanton’s election in 1974 and as his term in office unfolded, there were hints of scandals to come.
It wasn't all bad. While the Blanton administration had some successes, including boosting the state's agricultural products into international markets and no new taxes, they were overshadowed by other developments.
$20,000 to buy freedom
In the early years of his administration, Blanton faced several scandals and setbacks.
In 1976, Jack Lowery, a Lebanon-based attorney was visited by a man who identified himself as Bob Roundtree. Lowery had client in state prison for vehicular homicide. "I was working to try to get him executive clemency," Lowery said in a recent interview.
Lowery assured Eddie Sisk, the governor's legal counsel, that if his client were to be released, he would leave the state.
Roundtree told Lowery he could assist him on his client''s clemency. "I can give you the time he'll be released and there will be no conditions on his release and he will not have to go to Florida," Lowary said.
He was astounded by Roundtree's knowledge of his client's plan to leave the state.
Roundtree said it would cost $20,000.
Lowery wrote a report outlining his discussion with Roundtree, which ended up going to state investigators. Eventually, the FBI saw the report, which in part led to the agency's investigation into the administration's use of pardons.
By 1977, Blanton's administration faced additional scrutiny after the FBI investigated state employees, including two commissioners, for selling surplus state-owned cars to political allies.
Blanton: Convicted killer was a 'fine young man'
That same year, Blanton faced further ire after he vowed to WSMV reporter Carol Marin in a live interview to give a pardon to Roger Humphreys, who was sentenced to prison for killing his ex-wife and her male friend.
During Marin's interview, Blanton said Humphreys, whose father was a political ally of the governor, was a "nice young man."
“Roger was not a fine young man,” said Keel Hunt, who in 2013 published "Coup: The Day the Democrats Ousted Their Governor, Put Lamar Alexander in Office Early and Stopped a Pardon Scandal."
Hunt said Humphreys had used a two-shot Derringer to kill his victims. He shot them 18 times.
At one point during the Marin interview, Blanton said without being asked, "I haven't sold a single pardon, a single parole."
The interview set off a firestorm, with editorials appearing in newspapers around the state condemning Blanton. The next year, Democrat John Jay Hooker and former Gov. Winfield Dunn, a Republican, jumped on a petition effort, started by Alexander, to collect 1 million signatures urging Blanton not to pardon Humphreys.
For the remainder of his time in office, Blanton doubled down on his intentions, with the only exception being when he temporarily backed off shortly before the 1978 general election.
FBI zeroes in on the governor
During the 1978 election, Alexander, who was running once again for governor after losing to Blanton four years earlier, used the issues, as well as divisions within the Democratic Party, to bolster his candidacy.
He ended up beating Democrat Jake Butcher, netting nearly 56 percent of the vote. Blanton opted against seeking re-election.
Two months after the election, Blanton’s administration was further rocked by scandal.
On Dec. 15, 1978, the FBI held coordinated sweeps in Memphis and Nashville, arresting three Blanton aides. They included Eddie Sisk, the governor’s legal counsel, who was in the Capitol at the time; Charles Benson, an extradition officer; and Tennessee Highway Patrol officer Lt. Fred Taylor, who also served as one of Blanton's bodyguards.
The agents found marked $100 bills inside Sisk’s pocket. Benson, who was arrested at the Nashville airport, had clemency papers with him for Eddie Dallas Denton, who was in prison for killing three people. With recorded conversations of Taylor, the government said all three men were part of the scheme to sell pardons for prisoners.
Over the course of the next month, the machinations of the FBI’s investigation would appear on the front pages of The Tennessean and more frequently, the Nashville Banner, the afternoon newspaper with more conservative leanings.
On Jan. 4, the Banner reported a grand jury had viewed videotapes of transactions in the bribery scheme. The next day, the newspaper reported that FBI agents returned to the Capitol to question Blanton’s newest legal counsel and other staff members.
In an afternoon news conference on Jan. 6, Blanton told reporters he was the “target” of the grand jury’s investigation into alleged abuses in pardons and parole procedures.
As the daily headlines continued, Blanton maintained his innocence, culminating in his Jan. 11, 1979, State of the State address.
“Ladies and gentlemen, if I have seemed arrogant at times, I ask you to mark it down to my impatience with those who take the myopic view of the greatness and boundless potential of this state we love," he told the newly convened 91st General Assembly.
“I would never willingly do one single thing to hurt this state or its people," he added.
Blanton grants 52 clemency in late-night session
Perhaps Blanton's most daring act occurred on Jan. 15, 1979, when he emerged from his Capitol office shortly after 11 p.m. and announced that he had granted clemency to 52 inmates, including Humphreys.
Thirty-six of the 52 prisoners Blanton released did not receive a recommendation from the state Board of Pardons and Paroles. Twenty-three were serving time for murder.
After signing the clemency papers, Blanton reportedly said, "This takes guts."
Gentry Crowell, the secretary of state at the time, responded, "Yeah well some people have more guts than they've got brains."
Blanton's late-night clemency made an immediate impact. Alexander said the move was disgraceful. National news outlets suddenly descended on Tennessee.
"It was like dropping a match in a can of gasoline," remembers Hunt, who at the time worked for Alexander.
On the local CBS evening news, the anchor noted that Blanton had released more than more than 650 prisoners during his time in office.
Two days after the 52 pardons, Hardin had a short conversation with an FBI agent who told him the agency had new intelligence that Blanton was considering additional last-minute pardons, including of some people who were under active investigation.
The agent asked Hardin what he planned to do but the U.S. attorney simply said, "You don't want to know."
The prevailing concern was that if Blanton stayed in office until the end of his term, he could completely empty the prisons if he wanted. Among those who could have been pardoned was James Earl Ray, who just a decade before had assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis.
At that point, Hardin had made up his mind: He needed to encourage Alexander to take office early.
But he didn't tell anyone. Proper protocol would include notifying the Attorney General of the United States. To ignore the chain of command was extremely risky — he was, after all, an appointee of then-President Jimmy Carter.
Over the next several hours, Hardin worked to convince Alexander, then-House Speaker Ned McWherter and then-Lt. Gov. John Wilder of the necessity for an early swearing in. Both were Democrats.
Still, there were other obstacles.
Earlier in the week, the idea of an early swearing in had been broached and rejected by Alexander even after an opinion written by a low-level staffer in the attorney general's office said it was allowed.
But others, including then-Attorney General William Leech, a Democrat, were not fully convinced.
Former state Supreme Court Justice Bill Koch, then working as deputy state attorney general, remembers how he, Hardin, Leech and C. Hayes Cooney, the chief deputy to the attorney general, locked themselves in a downtown hotel room while considering the legality of an early swearing in.
"We finally got to the same place where we said in fact the original opinion was correct," Koch said.
Secrecy and trust were paramount among the various players involved, who had never worked together before, for fear of what Blanton might do if he found out about their efforts.
Trying to think of everything that could go wrong, Alexander recalls now that Blanton could have surrounded the Capitol with the Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers or members of the National Guard. If he did so, it would be a national embarrassment.
"It'd be like taking your first step into any sort of venture and walking right off the cliff and into a big mud puddle," Alexander said in a recent interview, referring to the newly formed coalition as a "bipartisan boot camp."
The players somehow managed to keep a tight lid on their plot, even as a frenzied group of media moved from Legislative Plaza to the Supreme Court chambers shortly before 6 p.m. on Jan. 17, 1979 — 40 years ago this week.
"Nobody really knew why we were there," David Fox, who was the chief capitol reporter for the Banner, said in an interview.
While gathered inside the Supreme Court's robing room, normally reserved for the justices, the bipartisan group leading the early ouster effort called Blanton at his home and informed him of the decision.
Around 5:55 p.m. central time, Alexander took the oath of office, administered by Joe Henry, the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, while joined by the attorney general, the speakers of the House and Senate, and a smattering of campaign staffers and advisers.
Afterwards, Alexander held an impromptu news conference to offer an explanation. Reporters noted the somber tone.
On Jan. 20, Alexander once again took the oath of office during the regularly scheduled inauguration.
In his speech, he said, "Let's go the extra mile to put the agony and the anger behind us. Let's let our pain give way to pride again."