Blago says goodbye before crowd of well-wishers

March 14, 2012 8:58:11 PM PDT
Flanked by his wife Patti and his youngest daughter, Rod Blagojevich bid a public goodbye outside his North Side home Wednesday during a statement that was part political stump speech, part confession.

"Everything I talked about doing when it came to campaign fundraising and political horsetrading, I believe it was on the right side of the law," Blagojevich said. "The decision went against me. I am responsible for the things that I said. I respect 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."

"I am proud as I leave and enter the next part of what is a dark, 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 actually helped real ordinary people," he said.

The former governor talked about his faith in God and expressed confidence that his appeal will be successful.

"We have great trust and faith in the appeal and while my faith has sometimes been challenged, I do believe this is America, a country that is governed by the rule of law, that the truth ultimately will prevail," he said.

Blagojevich made his 12-minute speech in front of his Ravenswood Manor home just after 5 p.m. amid cheers of support and a media circus. His wife wiped away tears. Afterward he signed autographs and waved to the crowd from his porch for nearly half an hour.

The Blagojeviches were said to have had a quiet family dinner later, although lawyers could be seen inside until about 7:30 p.m.

Blagojevich starts serving his 14-year prison sentence for corruption Thursday at a prison in Colorado. He will reportedly leave Illinois early Thursday morning with his lawyers, Sheldon Sorosky and Aaron Goldstein. Blagojevich's wife Patti and his two daughters will not be going along.

Attorneys for the ousted governor said he wanted to depart in a dignified way without a media frenzy. But that was not the case. Crowds had already gathered for his goodbye early Wednesday afternoon.

At 3 p.m. the ex-governor and daughter Annie left home, walking hand in hand down the block where they got into a friend's car, destination unknown. The walk was unscheduled but seemed to be for the cameras.

It was 10 years ago on March 14, 2002 when Rod Blagojevich was running for governor for the very first time that he appeared in the final Democratic primary debate. Controversy dogged Blagojevich even back then. The debate was marked by his apologies for, among other things, using non-union labor to rehab his Ravenswood home.

"I regret the fact that I was not more vigilant on this," he said during the 2002 debate. "It was more of an oversight. It was an act of omission, it was not intended."

Governor Pat Quinn, who replaced Blagojevich after the impeachment and removal from office, said Wednesday that Illinois is in better ethical shape than a few years ago.

"We're going to have two governors, former governors in jail at the same time," said Quinn. "That is something we never, never want to have happen. And I think it's important that the people of Il who are good and true always come out first. So if you are in public office, that's public service, not self service, and I think that those who don't understand that will have to pay the appropriate penalty found by the jury and judge in their case."

Blagojevich is just the latest in a long line of Illinois governors to be convicted of corruption.

Just six years ago, George Ryan was convicted in the license for bribes scandal and is currently serving his six-and-a-half-year sentence in federal prison. He's scheduled to be released in July of 2013.

In 1987, Dan Walker was convicted in a savings and loan scandal years after he left office. Walker spent just over a year and a half in prison.

And back in 1973, Governor Otto Kerner was convicted of bribery, conspiracy and perjury and was sentenced to three years in prison.

"Corruption is the political culture," said ABC7 political analyst Laura Washington. "This attitude is that everyone thinks they will be able to get away with it. A lot of people think this is how business is done. A lot of normal folks believe that. They believe Blagojevich is being treated unfairly because deal making is a fact of life in politics."

ABC7 will follow Blagojevich's trip and entrance into prison life in Colorado Thursday.

Sympathy, frustration from Blago's neighbors

At Blagojevich's front steps, a group of well-wishers hanged signs of support and expressed sadness about his impending trip to a Colorado prison.

"We're going to do whatever we can to get you out," one well-wisher shouted to Blagojevich during his speech. "We got your back."

The former governor's speech was over in 12 minutes. The handshakes, autographs and hugs lasted more than twice that long. Rod Blagojevich campaigned until the very end.

"I think he was right on," said neighbor Connie Wojdyla. "I'm proud of him. He's going to go out with his head held high. And I'm so happy, glad he came out here."

Blagojevich was greeted by chants of "free my governor" by a small but vocal group of supporters.

"I know he's innocent," said another supporter.

"I think the sentence was ridiculous, he's a human being and I have empathy," said Heather Jameson, Blagojevich supporter.

Earlier in the day, Blagojevich and his youngest daughter walked together down the block. Blagojevich ask her, "What do you think of the media?" She responded, "I don't like them."

Neither do many neighbors, annoyed by Blagojevich's constant quest for attention and the media who lap it up.

While the crowd outside the Blagojevich home had shrunk by Wednesday night, his attorney says the former governor remains hopeful he'll return sooner than his sentence suggests.

"He has accepted the wrongs that he has done but he believes in his innocence and he believes things will turn out for the better," said Aaron Goldstein, Blagojevich attorney. "In private, he's absolutely very similar, he's an extremely optimistic person."

FBI informant, juror react to Blago's speech

Two women who played key roles in the investigation and conviction of Rod Blagojevich watched the final chapter in his public life play out Wednesday.

They are two women who were going about their careers and lives when they got pulled into the web of the Blagojevich investigation and trial. Pam Davis helped initiate the investigation of Blagojevich and his administration eight years ago. Connie Wilson led the jury that convicted the former governor.

"He's a statesman to the end and that's part of who he is," Wilson told ABC7.

She heard plenty of what Blagojevich had to say in court as foreperson of the jury that sent him to prison. Still Wilson would not have missed the spectacle of his final remarks before heading to prison. And while she is sympathetic for the Blagojevich family, she has no regrets and no doubt she and the other jurors made the correct decision.

"Terribly sad day for Illinois but it's a devastating day for the family," said Wilson.

Wilson says she was surprised at the length of the 14-year sentence Judge James Zagel imposed on the former governor. But she is hopeful it will make other politicians think twice before making corrupt deals.

Pam Davis hopes the same thing. The CEO of Edward Hospital in Naperville first tipped off investigators about Blagojevich's corruption. She went to authorities eight years ago after she suspected Blagojevich aides were trying to extort contributions in exchange for approval to build a hospital in Plainfield. She wore a wire for the FBI during numerous meetings with the governor's staff.

"I do feel a sense of vindication now that people who do the right thing ultimately can see there are repercussions for not being an honest individual," said Davis.

Davis says she feels badly for Patti Blagojevich and the other family members of those convicted in the former governor's administration. But she's also angry that the former governor is still touting his accomplishments when in fact she believes he caused great harm to the healthcare system when he was in office.

Blago: Daughter's school is closing

Blagojevich expressed faith in his family as he prepares to be separated from them. He said he was comforted in knowing that he was leaving his daughters in the hands of good teachers and a great environment at their schools. But for his oldest daughter Amy there's added stress because her school is closing after 146 years.

"We learned today that Amy's school, St. Scholastica, is closing down," Blagojevich said. "It's a grievous blow to me and Patti and it's hard on Amy."

Amy is a sophomore at St. Scholastica Academy.

In a statement released by the school, Sister Patricia Crowly, prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Chicago, said, "we are deeply saddened by the need to close. We are dedicated to making the best transition possible for the students and faculty."

Officials acknowledge the school has struggled financially as well as with enrollment for the past 15 years.

In the ex-governor's public comments, he made one final plea to help his daughter and keep the school open.

"We hope that if anybody out there has a heart and cares about this all girls Catholic school and they what to help keep the school open it would mean a lot to the school and to us," he said.

Sister Crowley says Amy is a wonderful girl and she has done well at the school. The juniors at the school will have the option to continue their education at what will be called St. Scholastica Senior and earn their diplomas upon graduation.