NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A top legal aide and a state trooper assigned to former Gov. Ray Blanton, who was ousted from office, pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal charges of peddling executive clemency to state prison inmates.
T. Edward Sisk, Blanton's onetime legal counsel, and state trooper Charles F. Taylor, who was assigned to the governor's security detachment, face prison terms of up to five years each under a plea bargaining agreement.
Both agreed to testify 'fully and truthfully' if called in any further trial, raising the possibilty they will testify in the April 20 trial of Blanton, who has been indicted for alleged corruption in allocation of state liquor licenses.
The governor's brother, Gene Blanton, and his uncle, Jake Blanton, are also facing trial on charges of rigging bids on state road contracts.
The third defendant in the clemency-for-cash case, Charles Benson Jr., did not participate in the plea bargaining arrangement and his trial was set for March 26.
Sisk, 41, said he decided to change his plea because 'it becomes counter-productive at a point in time to keep on fighting when you are not doing anything in life except fighting.
'You have nothing else to look forward to when you get up in themorning except to go on fighting, guilt or innocence aside,' he said.
Sisk told U.S. District Judge James P. Churchill he took $10,000 in 'loans' to arrange the release of two prisoners during the Blanton administration.
Taylor, who admitted he acted a go-between in arranging clemency deals, refused to talk with reporters. He still faces a separate trial on counterfeiting charges.
Taylor and Sisk could have been sentenced to up to 20 years in prison and $25,000 in fines under the charges. The first attempt at prosecuting the defendants ended in a mistrial after the original trial judge, Charles Neese, suffered a heart attack in August 1979.
Blanton, ousted from office on Jan. 17, 1979 at the height of a pardons-peddling scandal, said he was 'shocked and disappointed' by the guilty pleas 'and I feel sorry for those families that are involved.'
Blanton touched off public outrage on Jan. 15, 1979 by granting executive clemency to 52 criminals, 24 of them convicted murderers, despite the arrest a month before of Sisk and others by FBI agents who were investigating the case.
The defendants were arrested on Dec. 15, 1978, by FBI agents who swarmed through the State Capitol, seizing hundreds of documents relating to executive clemency actions and records of Blanton's appointments secretary.
Blanton himself was informed that he was a 'target' of the federal investigation but that did not deter him from the bizarre clemency signing ceremony in the Capitol less than a month later.
'This takes guts,' Blanton said as he signed a commutation for Roger Humphreys, son of one of his patronage chiefs. The younger Humphreys was serving a 20-40 year sentence for killing his ex-wife and her boyfriend. 'Yeah, well some people have more guts than brains,' replied Secretary of State Gentry Crowell.
The indictment charged that the defendants used Blanton's office as a 'criminal enterprise' to arrange upwards of $300,000 in bribes to free prisoners and reduce their sentences.
The plea bargain agreement also left Sisk and Taylor free to appeal the judge's ruling that the governor's office could be a 'criminal enterprise.' The defense attorneys argued that the federal racketeering act that the men were charged under applied only to business organizations. Should an appeals court overturn the judge's ruling, the defendants would have the option of setting aside the plea-bargaining agreement.
During Wednesday's session, both Sisk and Taylor stood before the judge and admitted involvement in the schemes.
But neither implicated Benson in any of their in-court testimony. The chubby former extradition officer appeared pale and solemn as he watched his two co-defendants enter their pleas.
Sisk admitted taking money from William Aubrey Thompson, a former defendant in the case who earlier pled guilty and agreed to testify for the prosecution. Thompson, a former Chattanooga nightclub owner and political figure now serving time for tax evasion, said he paid Sisk $6,500 to arrange the release of armed robber William Cole.
The former governor's legal counsel, now running a mail order record shop, said Wednesday he accepted about $10,000 from Thompson that was an 'inducement' to arrange clemency for Cole and Larkin Bibbs Jr.
'I accepted the money from Mr. Thompson as a loan to be repaid,' Sisk told the judge. 'That money did induce me to obtain the release of Mr. Cole and Mr. Bibbs.'
After further questioning from Churchill, Sisk said:
'There was a series of loans I received from Mr. Thompson over a period of about two years that totaled approximately $10,000 and that I have repaid... I'm not implying to the court that these time cuts weren't justified. I'm just saying that there was an inducement to make them.'
Taylor said first met with Ernest Withers, father of State Rep. Teddy Withers, D-Memphis, and Withers arranged a meeting with Baldwin 'to discuss obtaining the release of several prisones.' Taylor said he went to Memphis and got $10,000 from Baldwin.
'Your role, then, was to receive the money and pay it over to others?' the judge asked.
'Yes sir,' Taylor responded.
'Did some of the money stop along the way and stay with you,' the judge asked.
'Yes sir,' Taylor replied.
After Taylor said he had given money to Sisk, but that Sisk had not known about the deal with Baldwin at the time it was made, Churchill declared, 'you don't just walk up to someone and hand him money.'
'Yes sir, I did,' responded Taylor.
Churchill then asked who was involved in the conspiracy, and Taylor replied, 'Mr. Baldwin and myself, and, at a later point in time, Mr. Sisk.'