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Rod Blagojevich, headed to prison, grabs spotlight a final time

March 15, 2012|By Michael Muskal

In just hours, Elvis will indeed be in the building – or at least one of the singer’s biggest fans will be in the building: former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. He'll soon arrive at a federal prison in Colorado to begin serving a sentence on corruption charges.

Blagojevich left his North Side Chicago home before dawn on Thursday for the trip to the Federal Correctional Institution Englewood outside Denver, where the 55-year-old former invincible iron man of Illinois politics will surrender in the afternoon. The governor, who gained notoriety for his Elvis impersonations, was surrounded by reporters as he made one more -- and one of his last -- trips through the media crush.

“I'm leaving with a heavy heart, a clear conscience and I have high, high hopes for the future,” Blagojevich said, in his customary pitch of unbridled optimism with a soupcon of the indefatigable spirit that he will need to serve his 14-year prison sentence.

“Saying goodbye is the hardest thing I've ever had to do,” Blagojevich told reporters, according to the video of the scrum.

Then, at a leisurely pace, his car headed to the airport for the flight to Colorado. The convoy was similar to that accompanying any celebrity -- from O.J. Simpson to Paris Hilton -- on their judicial-related trips. And it  seemed merited for a politician who turned to reality television to earn money after he was forced from office.

But Thursday will be the governor’s last day of glitz for a while. When he surrenders at federal prison in the afternoon, Blagojevich will swap his  finely tailored clothes for the basic khaki attire of an inmate. He'll give up high-priced living to work at some menial prison job, being paid just pennies per hour.

Blagojevich was convicted last year on 18 federal counts, including charges that he tried to sell or trade President Obama's former Senate seat. He follows in the footsteps of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who was  convicted of corruption charges in 2006.

Blagojevich under federal guidelines must serve 85% of the term – about 12 years.

Used to being a celebrity, Blagojevich will still have some elevated status, according to Jack Abramoff, a former lobbyist who served federal time for mail fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy.

“Most of [the inmates] are frankly friendly and not hostile, but it’s a completely disorienting environment. He’s a celebrity. So he will be the celebrity of the prison,” Abramoff said on CNN.

“I think that [former Enron executive] Jeff Skilling who is there, is probably happy that he is arriving because being the celebrity in prison, take it from me, is not fun,” Abramoff said.

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Michael.muskal@latimes.com

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