By Andrew Stern
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Convicted former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich surrendered at a Colorado prison on Thursday to begin serving a 14-year sentence on corruption charges, with TV news cameras tracking his every step.
News cameras followed the former governor being driven from Denver's airport and walking into the Federal Correctional Institution Englewood, about 15 miles southwest of Denver, where he has been assigned inmate number 40892-424. He wore jeans, a navy sports coat and carried a small backpack.
Emerging from his North Side Chicago home early Thursday to travel to the airport for a flight to Denver, an unsmiling Blagojevich, 55, spoke briefly to waiting reporters.
"Saying goodbye is the hardest thing I've ever had to do. I'm leaving with a heavy heart, a clear conscience and high, high hopes for the future," he said.
Blagojevich, a two-term Democrat thrown out of office in 2009, has focused on the appeal of his conviction, and has never admitted to wrongdoing other than talking too much and displaying too little humility.
He would be 67 years old when he emerges from prison if he serves the minimum 85 percent of his sentence. He is married to the daughter of his political mentor, a Chicago alderman, and they have two daughters, the youngest 8 years old.
Blagojevich was arrested in December 2008 to head off what federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald called an imminent crime spree to profit from his office, including attempts to sell or barter the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama.
Blagojevich was convicted in two trials - the jury failed to reach a verdict on all but one count after the first trial - and in December U.S. District Judge James Zagel handed Blagojevich a 14-year sentence on 18 corruption counts.
On Wednesday, in a lengthy parting statement before a crowd of media, neighbors and gawkers outside his North Side Chicago home, Blagojevich recited his accomplishments while in office and expressed optimism about his appeal. He hugged well-wishers and autographed anything handed to him.
Republican Illinois office-holders offered their comments on the lessons from the Blagojevich's case and called for comprehensive ethics reform.
"Let the sentencing for Gov. Blagojevich be a clear warning to all elected officials that public corruption of any form will not be tolerated. Illinois families have long suffered from an estimated $500 million hidden corruption tax," Republican U.S. Senator Mark Kirk's office said in a statement.
"We need to make sure our laws help federal prosecutors crack down on public corruption and restore integrity to Illinois."
(Editing by Daniel Trotta)