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Former Tennessee Governor Ray Blanton Dead at 66

November 22, 1996 GMT

JACKSON, Tenn. (AP) _ Former Gov. Ray Blanton, 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 today. He was 66.

Blanton, Democratic governor from 1975 to 1979 and a congressman before that, had been at Jackson-Madison County Hospital since Monday and was awaiting a liver transplant, longtime friend and former scheduler Jean Curran said. He died around 5 a.m. of complications of the liver disease, she said.

His term as Tennessee’s governor ended abruptly in the waning days of his term, after Blanton pardoned and commuted the prison terms for 52 state inmates.

In the resultant outrage, Blanton’s fellow Democrats in the Legislature joined forces with Republicans to move up the date of the inauguration by three days. Blanton’s Republican successor, Lamar Alexander, was then sworn in.

Blanton was never charged in the 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. Blanton served 22 months in a federal prison.

The charges against the three aides came in December 1978. They were accused of accepting money in return for approving paroles for prisoners. But Blanton continued issuing pardons even after those charges were brought, resulting in the change in the inauguration date.

Two of the three aides were eventually convicted and sentenced to prison, while the third was acquitted.

In 1985, the movie ``Marie″ was made about the release of the prisoners and included Fred Thompson, now a U.S. senator, playing 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, 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.

The cash-for-clemency case wasn’t the only scandal during Blanton’s administration. A state transportation commissioner went on trial in state court and was acquitted on charges of illegally disposing of surplus state cars.

On the plus side, 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.

Born in Hardin County, Tenn., Blanton was reared on a farm and graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in agriculture. After teaching school for a time in Indiana, he returned to Tennessee and formed B&B Construction Co. with his brother, Gene, and his father.

He ran unopposed for a seat in the state House of Representatives in 1964 and two years later was elected to the U.S. House, unseating incumbent Rep. Tom Murray in West Tennessee’s 7th Congressional District.

He was re-elected in 1968 and 1970, retiring from the House in 1972 to run as the Democratic nominee against Republican Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. Blanton was defeated by a 2-to-1 margin but built the political organization that carried him to victory as governor two years later. He won the Democratic nomination with about 23 percent of the votes in a 12-candidate race and defeating Alexander in November.

Blanton opted not to run for a second term in 1978.

After his release from prison, Blanton 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.