On last free day, Blagojevich offers last words

CHICAGO (AP) — Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich embraced the public spotlight one last time Wednesday before reporting to prison, claiming he always believed what he did was legal and that he has faith the appeal of his corruption convictions would be successful.

The famously talkative Blagojevich seemed to relish the attention as he spoke to a throng of television cameras, reporters and well-wishers outside his Chicago home. In less than 24 hours, he was due to arrive at a Colorado prison to begin serving a 14-year sentence on corruption charges, including that he tried to sell or trade an appointment to President Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat.

“We have great trust and faith in the appeal. And while my faith in things has sometimes been challenged, I still believe this is America, this is a country that is governed by the rule of law, that the truth ultimately will prevail,” the impeached governor said, as his wife stood by his side.

“As bad as it is, (this) is the beginning of another part of a long and hard journey that will only get worse before it gets better, but that this is not over.”

Supporters chanted “free our governor” and “he’s not guilty,” and a banner that was hung over a railing on Blagojevich’s porch read: “Thanks Mr. Governor. We Will Pray.” After his statement, he signed autographs and chatted with supporters.

The 55-year-old father of two daughters appeared emotional at times, but then he appeared to be back on the campaign stump.

Blagojevich said preparing to leave for prison is “the hardest thing I’ve ever done” and that he had difficulty even saying he was going to prison. But he also insisted that he always did what he thought was right for Illinois, saying he “actually helped real ordinary people” and listed what he believed were accomplishments as governor, including expanding health care for children and not raising taxes.

Although he apologized for his actions during his sentencing in December, saying he “caused it all” and was “just so incredibly sorry,” Blagojevich seemed less contrite on Wednesday. He said he took responsibility for saying the things jurors heard on FBI tapes played during those trials, but that he always believed what he was doing “was on the right side of the law.”

Blagojevich was convicted of 18 criminal counts during two trials.

When he reports Thursday to the Federal Correctional Institution Englewood in suburban Denver, he will become the second Illinois governor in a row sent to prison for corruption. Former Gov. George Ryan is serving a 6 1/2-year sentence in a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind.

Blagojevich’s attorneys said he wanted to depart in a dignified way, without a media frenzy. But he timed his departing statement to begin at precisely 5:02 p.m. so it could appear live on the evening news. His publicist even gave a two-minute warning via Twitter so newscasts could be ready.

More than 50 reporters crowded to hear the former governor as two television helicopters hovered overhead and a dozen TV trucks were parked along the street nearby.

Blagojevich spoke about how difficult his imprisonment would be on his wife and two daughters, Amy and Annie, who both will be young women before their father is released.

“We are teaching our kids that in hard times, in tears, you’ve got to live in your hopes and not your fears,” he said.

After his wife retreated to the house, Blagojevich lingered on his porch steps, chatting with supporters, hugging children and bantering with reporters. At one point, Blagojevich, a self-proclaimed Elvis Presley fan, told supporters, “Jailhouse rock is no longer my favorite song.”

Federal agents arrested the then-governor at his home on Dec. 9, 2008. When an FBI official called to tell Blagojevich agents were at his door to arrest him, he reportedly responded in disbelief, “Is this a joke?”

After his arrest, Blagojevich hit the talk-show circuit to declare his innocence and to rail against prosecutors, even appearing on Donald Trump’s reality show, “The Apprentice.”

Blagojevich took the witnesses stand at his retrial, telling jurors that his talk about selling Obama’s seat was just that — talk.

In the end, though, it did him little good. His first trial in 2011 ended with jurors deadlocked on all but one count. The next year, jurors were more decisive and convicted Blagojevich on 17 of 20 counts.

Blagojevich, whose penchant for expensive suits and lavish spending were outlined at his first trial, will have no luxuries in Colorado.

The prison complex is encircled by double, razor-wire fencing and is well-guarded. Inside, Blagojevich’s life will be strictly regimented: he must wake at dawn, work a menial prison job eight hours a day and submit to head counts at all hours of the day.

“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” Blagojevich told the crowd. But it is the law, and we follow the law, and I will begin to do that tomorrow.”

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