The 1970s was just a golden age of political corruption. Nixon is usually the guy who gets the most publicity, but corrupt politicians at smaller levels of government deserve their fair share of the spotlight, too. One of the most corrupt of them all was Ray Blanton, Governor of Tennessee, from 1975 to 1979. Controversy followed this guy like a shadow, to the point where he has been the subject of investigations still going on this year. 

At the more minor end of the spectrum of corrupt acts, Blanton was often in the public eye for controversies like an inexplicable pay raise while governor

As for more problematic offenses, Blanton is most well-known for selling pardons in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars. Members of his administration, most notably a man named Bob Rountree, would receive cash that would go to the governor’s office. Prisoners would then be released under official pardons. Blanton denied ever being involved in such a scheme, but pardons ridiculous ramped up as his time in office came to an end in 1979.

On a single day in the waning days of his term as governor, Blanton granted 52 pardons. Out of these pardons, 23 went to people convicted of murder. One went to Robert Humphreys, the son of a political supporter of Blanton’s, who had killed his ex-wife and a man she was friends with. These spooked other government officials, who worried that he might continue with the frequent (and likely corrupt) pardons.

This led to a unique episode in American history where the next governor, Lamar Alexander, was sworn in a few days before his term was scheduled to begin to stop Blanton’s pardons.

Once away from the position of governor, Blanton continued to get in the news for the wrong reasons. In 1981, he was convicted of selling liquor licenses to friends and political supporters. He was sentenced to 22 months in prison for this offense. 

Blanton died in 1996 after thankfully never regaining the influence he had in the 1970s. Like all great scandal magnets, though, we are still learning about the extent of what he did. 

On February 1, 1979, after Blanton had been removed from office, a businessman (and yet another scandal machine) named Sam Pettyjohn was murdered in a beer shop he owned. It was believed that a bank robber named William Edward Alley committed the crime, but the case went cold. 

In 2021, though, investigators announced breakthroughs in what likely happened. In short, Pettyjohn was executed because he “knew too much.” Pettyjohn was involved in Blanton’s cash-for-parole scheme, and when the FBI started looking into Blanton, he became an informant. Alley was then paid to kill Blanton, and this hit had been traced back to Blanton’s administration.

Pettyjohn wasn’t the only mysterious death linked to investigations into Blanton. Five witnesses were either killed or died by suicide, and if the idea of someone involved in this case dying by suicide seems suspicious, that’s because it probably is. 

Ray Blanton did at least face some consequences for his actions. He didn’t get to have a fully gubernatorial term (even if only by a few days), and he did spend time in prison (even if less than he probably should have). Since there are still investigations involving him more than four decades after his time as governor, we may not have heard the last of Tennessee’s most notorious politician.

Top Image: Library of Congress, Brian Stansberry

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