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CHICAGO — Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich embraced the public spotlight one last time Wednesday, claiming on the day before he reports to prison that he always believed what he did was legal and expressing faith that an appeal of his corruption convictions will succeed.
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 less than 24 hours before he was due to arrive at a Colorado prison to begin serving a 14-year sentence. He was convicted on 18 counts during two trials, including charges that he tried to sell or trade an appointment to President Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat.
"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 during an event that seemed part farewell, part campaign rally.
"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 hung over a railing on Blagojevich's porch read: "Thanks Mr. Governor. We Will Pray." After his statement, Blagojevich signed autographs and chatted with supporters.
Standing beside his wife, the 55-year-old father of two daughters appeared emotional at times. He 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 at other moments, he appeared to be back on the campaign stump, insisting that he always did what he thought was right for Illinois. Blagojevich said he "actually helped real ordinary people" and listed what he believed were his accomplishments as governor, including expanding health care for children and not raising taxes.
During his sentencing in December, he apologized for his actions by saying he "caused it all" and was "just so incredibly sorry."
But Blagojevich seemed less contrite on Wednesday, calling his troubles a "calamity" that had befallen his family and saying he always believed what he was doing "was on the right side of the law."
The crowd outside his Northwest Side bungalow grew to more than 300 strong, spilling people onto the street and stumbling into the family's rose bushes. Blagojevich was nearly knocked down by the surging crowd as he came out of his house and down the steps holding his wife's hand.
As the disgraced governor made his way back through the crowd after speaking, several women leaned in to kiss him. One, in her late 50s, reached over to stroke his hair.
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 had 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 nearby.
Blagojevich spoke about how difficult his imprisonment would be on his wife and two daughters, Amy and Annie, who will be young women before their father is released. Amid the frenzy, his youngest daughter walked out of the house and stared down at the raucous scene – unsmiling and seemingly bewildered.
"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, the 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.
In Colorado, Blagojevich – whose penchant for expensive suits and lavish spending were outlined at his first trial – will have no luxuries. The prison complex is encircled by double, razor-wire fencing and is well-guarded. Inside, inmates must wake at dawn, work menial jobs 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 in Chicago. "But it is the law, and we follow the law, and I will begin to do that tomorrow."
Associated Press writers Tammy Webber and Karen Hawkins contributed to this report from Chicago.
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