Updated 03/14/12 – 9:36 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) — The day before he reports to prison to begin serving his 14-year sentence, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich said, “this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
Speaking for about 12 minutes outside his Ravenswood home, Blagojevich said he’s tried to avoid thinking about the time he is facing in prison, even with only hours left to surrender to federal authorities.
“Tomorrow, saying goodbye to Patti and my kids will be the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I’ve been putting off the thought about what that’s going to be like. I can’t even think about it now,” he said.
Standing next to his wife, Patti, Blagojevich expressed a sense of regret, but insisted he always believed he acted on the right side of the law.
“I believe I always, always thought about what was right for the people, and I am proud as I leave … and enter the next part of what is a dark and hard journey, that I can take with me the sense of accomplishment … and the real belief that the things that I did as governor and the things I did as Congressman helped real, ordinary people.”
The former governor also said he was confident that his appeal of his conviction and sentence would ultimately be successful.
“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, that right makes might, and that this, as bad as it is, is the beginning of another part of our long and hard journey that will only get worse before it gets better, but that this is not over,” he said.
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Blagojevich, who was convicted of trying to sell or trade an appointment to the U.S. Senate and to obtain campaign contributions in exchange for other official actions, insisted he thought everything he did was legal. Although he also admitted he made mistakes, he did not point to anything specific from the corruption charges that led to his conviction.
“I told the judge back in December that I certainly made my share of mistakes. I take responsibility and I’m responsible, I told him, for the things that I said,” Blagojevich said.
But he reiterated that he believed his discussions about campaign contributions while discussing official actions as governor were nothing more than legal “political horse trades”
“As I told the judge back in December, everything I talked about doing when it came to campaign fundraising and political horse-trading, I believed was on the right side of the law,” Blagojevich said. “The decision went against me. … I accept that decision, as hard as it is. And the law, as it stands right now, is that I have to go do what I have to go do, and this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, but it is the law and we follow the law and I will begin to do that tomorrow.”
Blagojevich also said he regrets what his two children, Amy and Annie, have gone through as a result of his conviction and pending time behind bars.
“How do you make sense of all this? What do you tell your children when calamity strikes and hardship comes? What do you do when disaster hits your family and you leave behind your children and your wife?” he said. “Saying goodbye to Patti and to my kids will be the hardest thing that I’ve ever had to do. I’ve been putting off the thought of what that’s going to be like. I can’t even think about it now.”
“I have to confess there are times I just want to give up, but then I look into the eyes of my daughters, and I look at my little girls and I think that is not what a father is supposed to do,” Blagojevich added. “You’re supposed to show them how you fight through adversity, and you keep fighting, and you stand strong, and you bear your crosses, and you bear your burdens. And that’s what I hope maybe, maybe, our kids can learn at least in part from what’s happening to us and the calamity that we’re facing.”
The governor also rattled off a list of accomplishments he said he believed helped Illinois residents while he was governor, including health care coverage for children, free public transit for seniors, and his stance against any efforts to raise the income tax.
“Let me also say to the people of Illinois how they honored me by electing me their governor twice,” Blagojevich said. “I want you all to know you honored me with that privilege.”
Blagojevich thanked the dozens of well-wishers who gathered outside his home throughout the day for their support.
“Patti and I want to take this opportunity and, I think we’d prefer to have another opportunity to do this, but we want to thank all the people here today and everywhere who have been supportive, and kind, and good to us, to our children, during what has been a very long and hard three years,” he said.
He also thanked supporters who have sent him bibles, prayer beads and food during his legal ordeal.
“We are so grateful to you and we want you to know we will never forget your kindness to us,” he said.
The former governor’s supporters interrupted his statement a couple times, once when members of the crowd loudly chanted “free our governor,” and again when one man pushed his way through the crowd to drape an American flag over the shoulders of Blagojevich and his wife, Patti.
The couple appeared confused by what was happening and they asked the man to take the flag off before Blagojevich resumed speaking.
Blagojevich is scheduled to report to FCI Englewood – a low-security federal prison in Littleton, Colo. – by Thursday afternoon.
He has been sentenced to 14 years in prison for 18 corruption counts after two trials. He could serve about 12 years, if granted time off for good behavior and for enrolling in an alcohol abuse treatment program while behind bars.
News helicopters hovered over his home for much of the afternoon on Wednesday and dozens of reporters and well-wishers gathered outside his home to wait for his final public statement.
Earlier in the afternoon, reporters surrounded Blagojevich as he left the house with his daughter, Annie, and a longtime friend who has frequently been mistaken for male model Fabio. When the former governor and his daughter returned about half an hour later, Annie chastised reporters who surrounded her father.
“If you’re going to see him at 5, then don’t do it now!” she shouted.
“That’s my baby,” Blagojevich said with a laugh. “She wanted me to tell you that we’re going to talk at 5 o’clock, we’ll see you then.”
But as reporters continued to ask Blagojevich questions while he walked into the house, Annie shouted out again.
“Ask questions later,” she said.
Blagojevich’s defense attorney, Sheldon Sorosky, showed up at the house later Wednesday afternoon. Sorosky said it was a sad day for his client, but he thought Blagojevich seemed to be keeping a positive attitude.
“He seemed very upbeat, and very hopeful, of course,” Sorosky said.
Sorosky said Blagojevich’s appeal was still in the “embryonic stages,” but he said he was confident Blagojevich had a chance to get his conviction overturned.
Several Blagojevich supporters gathered in front of the house throughout the day. Some of them pitched a sign reading, “We will pray for you,” and “thank you.”
Another sign called for “leniency” for Blagojevich and asked people to call the White House.
“It’s very sad. Chicago is very sad. Anybody who has a family, to see these kids taken away,” said Ziff Sistrunk, director of the Kirby Puckett Youth Center on the city’s South Side. “Chicago and Illinois, and the United States, could have been benefited by Mr. Blagojevich’s use of his talents and skills.”
After making his 12-minute statement, Blagojevich spent about 45 minutes signing autographs for the supporters outside his home and speaking to people who clamored for one last picture or conversation with the former governor before he goes to prison.
–Todd Feurer, CBS Chicago web producer