CHICAGO - In defiant remarks, Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich vowed yesterday to fight until his last breath to save his job and his reputation.
In his first public comments since his arrest on federal felony corruption charges, Blagojevich said, "I'm going to tell you right off the bat that I am not guilty of any criminal wrongdoing, that I intend to stay on the job, and I will fight this thing every step of the way."
Until yesterday, the 52-year-old Democrat had said nothing in public about the allegations - including that he sought to auction the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama - that led to his dramatic Dec. 9 arrest on felony influence-peddling charges.
Earlier this week, as Illinois lawmakers began building an impeachment case against him, Blagojevich dispatched prominent Chicago defense lawyer Ed Genson to the legislature, where he said the proceedings were like something out of
Alice in Wonderland
and that his client had done nothing wrong.
Addressing reporters yesterday, Blagojevich dismissed the impeachment effort as "false allegations" by a "political lynch mob."
"I will fight, I will fight, I will fight, until I take my last breath," he said. "I have done nothing wrong."
He took no questions from reporters.
Blagojevich's decisions about his future will capture attention from Springfield, where state officials are facing a billion-dollar budget crunch, to Washington, where Democrats and Republicans are waiting to see who succeeds Obama as the junior senator from Illinois.
The governor has sole authority to choose Obama's successor. State legislators considered trying to change the law to allow a special election, but shelved the idea without action and adjourned until mid-January.
Blagojevich appeared yesterday on the 15th floor of a state office building in snow-swamped Chicago.
A 76-page FBI affidavit, relying on secretly recorded conversations involving the governor, has described a host of potential crimes, many of them involving alleged efforts by Blagojevich to squeeze campaign contributions from people seeking state business.
In one example, Blagojevich is heard on secretly recorded FBI tapes demanding that aides collect a $50,000 campaign contribution from the director of Chicago's Children's Memorial Hospital in return for the governor's release of $8 million in doctors' payments. The director did not pay.
Among the accusations is that the governor was scheming to sell Obama's vacant Senate seat for big campaign contributions or a lucrative job for himself.
What he hopes to accomplish by staying in office appears unclear.
Blagojevich appears to have no political support, the Illinois House having voted 113-0 last week to assemble an impeachment committee, and his ability to govern has been crippled.
Republican State Sen. Dale Righter said that if Blagojevich manages to escape impeachment, his governing will be limited to signing legislation, directing his agencies and other "housekeeping stuff."
After the speech, disappointed Republicans argued that if Blagojevich cannot be dislodged right away, he should at least be disarmed.
They called on the Democrats in the Legislature to hold a special election to fill the Senate seat, stripping Blagojevich of the power to make the appointment.
Democratic Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn pleaded with Blagojevich to step aside under a constitutional provision that allows him to keep his title but give his duties to an acting governor - which, under the rules of succession, would be Quinn.
But even before the speech, Blagojevich's lawyer, Genson, had made it plain the governor would not go down without a fight.
Genson challenged the Illinois House impeachment committee at every turn this week, arguing that the wiretaps were illegal, accusing some of the panel members of having already made up their mind, and complaining that Illinois law does not spell out the grounds for impeachment or what evidence should be considered.
Some lawyers said Genson was on the right track in contesting the legality of the FBI wiretaps, though they warned that few such challenges succeed.
"But the more noise you make about it, the more chance you have of getting it suppressed," said Professor Leonard L. Cavise of DePaul University College of Law.
The impeachment panel wants federal prosecutors to release details of their probe of Blagojevich, including copies of taped conversations, and give the Legislature some guidance on who can be called as a witness without compromising the federal case.
Another Blagojevich attorney, Sam Adam Jr., said the tapes may not be as conclusive as prosecutors say.
"I guarantee you that when those tapes come out, and they're not just 15-second snippets that an agent who sits down in an office somewhere pulls out what he thinks is bad, when we get to it, you're going to find out the truth on these conversations," Adam said.