His political career in tatters and Illinois government in limbo, a defiant and unapologetic Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich said Friday that he was innocent of federal corruption charges and would not resign.
“I am here to tell you right off the bat that I am not guilty of any criminal wrongdoing,” Blagojevich said. “I intend to stay on the job, and I will fight this thing every step of the way. I will fight. I will fight. I will fight until I take my last breath. I have done nothing wrong.”
In pleading with the public for patience and the presumption of innocence, the two-term Democratic governor publicly addressed for the first time the sweeping federal corruption charges that led to his arrest Dec. 9. He took no questions.
His stance means the state’s leadership void is likely to continue for months as he and his lawyers fight criminal charges in court and an impeachment effort in the capital, Springfield. Illinois is no closer to getting a U.S. senator to replace President-elect Barack Obama -- under state law, only the governor can fill the vacancy -- and state government remains largely on hold.
Blagojevich’s dramatic three-minute statement did nothing to slow down a special House committee weighing his impeachment. The panel’s bipartisan leadership responded by preparing a letter to the governor once again inviting him to appear before them to tell his side of the story.
“I expected him to take this tack, and I’m just carrying on my course, and that means digging in as deeply as we feel we must,” said House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, the Chicago Democrat who chairs the impeachment panel. “He’s welcome to protest his innocence, but we’re back in Springfield on Monday continuing with the hearing concerning the governor’s probity and conduct in office.”
The governor’s response was vintage Blagojevich: a bombastic attack on his political enemies peppered with a famous quote. He portrayed himself as a “lonely” victim of “powerful forces” and “political enemies” seeking to dislodge him while he had the most important ally of all -- the truth.
“And I’m not going to quit a job the people hired me to do because of false accusations and a political lynch mob,” Blagojevich said before taking a dig at Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn and Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan for their high-profile TV appearances demanding that he step down.
Blagojevich did not address the specific criminal charges he faces, which include allegations of attempting to sell Obama’s Senate seat; trying to wring campaign donations in exchange for state money and contracts; and threatening to withhold state financing for the Tribune Co.'s sale of Wrigley Field unless it fired editorial writers unfriendly to the governor. Tribune owns the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. (No editorial writers were fired.)
Instead, Blagojevich vowed to answer the allegations in court. “And when I do, I am absolutely certain that I will be vindicated,” he said.
He also recited portions of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If,” which he has done frequently to reporters in the past when facing intense criticism:
“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, [but] make allowance for their doubting too . . . “
Despite the governor’s defiance, one of his attorneys, Sam Adam Jr., offered that there was a slim possibility that Blagojevich could step down at some point.
“If it doesn’t work, if it is too hard, if the people of Illinois suffer, he will step aside,” Adam said at a packed news conference, contending that Blagojevich had personally expressed those views to him.
Adam addressed questions like a pro wrestler taunting his foes from the center of the ring but provided little guidance about when that threshold might be reached.
“I’ll tell you when you know it’s gone too far and he needs to step aside, and that’s when nothing at all can be done on behalf of those that need it,” he said. “I can’t tell you that four or five days before Christmas. Three or four days before Easter, we may have a better idea here. So when the Easter Bunny comes knocking, we may have an announcement to make, but until then, you’ve got to give us a chance to find out if we can do this.”
Quinn, the lieutenant governor and Blagojevich’s two-time running mate, said the scandal had thrust Illinois into “paralysis.”
“Wake up; the people are in jeopardy,” Quinn said. “And the governor needs to realize that . . . it’s time to step aside.”
Republicans used the governor’s remarks to call again for a special election to fill Obama’s Senate seat.
“We heard ‘fight, fight, fight’ instead of ‘resign, resign, resign,’ ” Republican state Sen. Matt Murphy said. “This governor has lost his ability to lead.”