Book Review: COUP

The Day the Democrats Ousted Their Governor, Put Republican Lamar Alexander in Office Early, and Stopped a Pardon Scandal

By Keel Hunt | Vanderbilt University Press | $27.50 | 248 pages | 2013

This review gives you two opinions — one from Judge Walter Kurtz and one from Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle.

If you are interested in a story that interweaves politics, corruption, and law, this is the book for you; and it all happened right here in Tennessee in 1979. Keel Hunt takes the reader back to the pardon scandal (Clemency for Cash) that gripped the state in 1978-79 and brought about the transfer of power from Gov. Ray Blanton to Lamar Alexander four days earlier than scheduled. Hunt, a former reporter and then assistant to Gov. Alexander, knows the subject: he was there.

In 1978 the administration of Gov. Ray Blanton was immersed in an FBI investigation inquiring into the sale of pardons to inmates by aides to the governor. Blanton decided not to run again, and in November Lamar Alexander was elected governor and was to be inaugurated on Jan. 20, 1979. The state festered under the pardons-for-sale scandal, and then in mid-December 1978 the governor’s legal counsel, Eddie Sisk, and two other aides were arrested in possession of marked money and documents relating to the clemency scandal.

Earlier in 1976 Gov. Blanton had announced he would pardon a recently convicted murderer, Roger Humphreys. In the face of public outcry he recanted his promise. Humphreys was the son of a Blanton patronage operative from East Tennessee. Now in the fall of 1978 and in spite of the pardons investigation Blanton again said he would pardon Humphreys. Alexander is elected, but Blanton plows ahead. On Jan. 15, 1979, Blanton pardons Humphreys and 51 others.

At that point Mr. Hunt’s detailed account of the days that follow begins in earnest.

The U.S. Attorney Hal Hardin had information from the FBI that still more pardons were to follow and some of these were inmates involved in the pardons-for-sale investigation. It is now Wednesday, Jan. 17, 1979. The inauguration is scheduled for the following Saturday. The state constitution says only that the governor shall take the oath after the second Tuesday in January. The second Tuesday in January had passed.

Hardin calls Alexander expressing his concern that more pardons will be granted before Saturday. Alexander feels compelled to act but only if he has the support of the Democratic establishment, namely the Speaker of the House, Ned McWherter; the Lt. Gov., John Wilder; and the State Attorney General, Bill Leech.

Hunt weaves the story of the hectic afternoon of that Wednesday into a fascinating story of divergent politicians setting aside partisanship to arrive at concerted and joint action to avert further scandal. With Bill Leech; Bill Koch, then a deputy attorney general; Lewis Donelson and Tom Ingram, intimates of the governor-elect all acting as intermediaries, the principals agree on a plan. Lamar Alexander should be sworn in that day at 6 p.m., thus emasculating Ray Blanton and his authority to issue further pardons.

It happens. With Chief Justice Joe Henry administering the oath in the Supreme Courtroom the power to govern the state was passed to Gov. Alexander. Standing next to and behind Alexander was McWherter, Wilder and Leech. Henry, McWherter, Wilder and Leech were all Democrats, but they had all acted as Tennesseans. The “coup” had taken place.

When the capitol was secured that night, Blanton’s new legal counsel was at his desk preparing 28 more pardons and commutations. They were seized and never signed. The inauguration still took place as planned on Saturday, January 20, 1979, but Gov. Alexander had already assumed the power of the office four days earlier.

Eddie Sisk and another Blanton aide were later convicted for their role in the pardons for sale scandal and went to prison. Ray Blanton was still later convicted for his part in a convoluted scheme to sell state-controlled liquor licenses and also went to prison.

Keel Hunt’s book is well constructed with its emphasis on the events related to this extraordinary transfer of power. The portraits of the participants should remind all of us how lawyers (all the major participants were lawyers except for McWherter and Ingram) acted and put aside their self and partisan interests when the integrity of our institutions were at stake. The book should cause us to reflect, in these days of cynicism, that we can still produce public officials that give primacy to the public interest.

— Judge Walter Kurtz

***

Coup, Keel Hunt’s book about the January 1979 precipitous swearing-in of Lamar Alexander to thwart last minute gubernatorial pardons for cash, is a must-read for Tennessee lawyers.

The trigger for the plot is the last weeks of the lame duck Blanton administration. Lamar Alexander, the Republican winner of the November 1978 election, is to be sworn in Jan. 20 as governor. He has defeated Jake Butcher who threw his hat in the ring after Ray Blanton decided not to run for a second term. Alongside these election events is that for some time law enforcement has been investigating the suspicion that the fix is in and cash is the quid pro quo for pardons being issued by Blanton aides. The threat of dire consequences to the state and a blown FBI investigation mount when U.S. Attorney Hal Hardin  learns that inmates, convicted of the most serious crimes and subjects of the FBI investigation into pay for pardons, are to be pardoned and released before Lamar Alexander is scheduled to take office. Democratic leaders and friends of the Blanton administration, Speaker of the House Ned Ray McWherter and Lt. Gov. John Wilder, put the good of the state first. They act quickly and in unison with Attorney General William Leach and Lamar Alexander’s advance team of Lewis Donelson and Tom Ingram to surreptitiously move up the swearing-in, and lock down and secure the Capitol. The exhibited seamlessness of the transition and the calm of the participants and architects of the advanced taking of office are now revealed to have been resolute but mixed with trepidation.

While any reader would find the book a very good read, Tennessee lawyers will be particularly fascinated.  Newcomers through all generations of the bar will delight in learning or being reminded of interesting but not overkill details about the who’s who of Tennessee lawyers:  Justice Koch (then Deputy Attorney General Bill Koch), Bill Leach, Justice Henry. As well, Ed Yarbrough, Hayes Cooney, David Pack, Jack Lowery, Justice William Harbison, Judge Tom Wiseman, all make appearances. It is fun to read about the people you know personally and to find out about those you have heard of over the years but were not exactly certain of the reason for their fame. The lawyer-characters never fail to wryly entertain such as the lamentation, “I’ve been bit by my own dog,” said by a lawyer who did not receive a judicial appointment by his friend in power.

Also given a leading role is The Rule of Law. Without being preachy, the shear unfolding of the story shows how lawyers and statesmen researching, analyzing and then acting upon a constitutional provision (Article II, section 8 — it’s there, Judge Kurtz looked it up) avoid disastrous consequences for the state and serve the public.

Keel Hunt’s experience as a journalist provides a glimpse into the human side of the media. There is newbie reporter Peggy Reisser cracking the case from a bone thrown her by seasoned reporters on what they thought was a cold case. The competitiveness of lawyers dims in comparison to the tag team UPI reporters who hand off the one pay phone to each other in the Supreme Court building to scoop the AP.

There is so much to enjoy about this book whose title of Coup, connoting anarchy, violence and warring factions, ironically relates a success story of political rivals in transitioning power. It is a testament to the character of the people involved and also a testament to the can-do state of Tennessee.

—  Chancellor Ellen Lyle


WALTER KURTZ is a graduate of The Citadel and Vanderbilt Law School. He served in an armored cavalry squadron in Vietnam in 1968-69. He was director of Legal Services of Nashville (now Legal Aid) and was Metropolitan Public Defender from 1978 to 1982. He argued a case before the United States Supreme Court, was a circuit judge in Nashville from 1982 to 2008 and then a senior judge from 2008 to 2012.

ELLEN LYLE has served for 18 years as a chancellor in Davidson County. Prior to that she was a partner in the Nashville law firm of Trabue, Sturdivant & DeWitt, and an associate attorney with Fulbright & Jaworski in Houston, Texas. She graduated from the University of Tennessee College of Law in Knoxville where she served on the Tennessee Law Review, Moot Court Board, and was an Officer of the Student Bar Association. She is a former member of the Tennessee Bar Journal Editorial Board.