WASHINGTON -- Charles Colson, the tough-as-nails special counsel to President Richard Nixon who went to prison for his role in a Watergate-related case and became a Christian evangelical helping inmates, has died. He was 80.
Colson's death was confirmed by Jim Liske, chief executive of the Lansdowne, Va.-based Prison Fellowship Ministries that Colson founded. Liske said the preliminary cause of death is complications from brain surgery Colson had at the end of March.
Colson, with his trademark horn-rimmed glasses, was known as the "evil genius" of the Nixon administration who once said he'd walk over his grandmother to get the president elected to a second term.
"I shudder to think of what I'd [have] been if I had not gone to prison," Colson said in 1993. "Lying on the rotten floor of a cell, you know it's not prosperity or pleasure that's important, but the maturing of the soul."
The Washington Post described him in 1972 as "one of the most powerful presidential aides, variously described as a troubleshooter and as a 'master of dirty tricks.' "
He helped run the Committee to Re-elect the President when it set up an effort to gather intelligence on the Democratic Party. The arrest of the organization's security director and four other men burglarizing the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate building in 1972 set off the scandal that led to Nixon's resignation in August 1974.
But it was actions that preceded the actual break-in that resulted in Colson's criminal conviction. He pleaded guilty to efforts to discredit Pentagon analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the secret Defense Department study of Vietnam that became known as the Pentagon Papers.
The efforts to discredit Ellsberg included use of Nixon's plumbers -- a covert group established to investigate White House leaks -- in 1971 to break into the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist to look for information that could discredit Ellsberg's anti-war efforts.
The Ellsberg burglary was revealed during the course of the Watergate investigation and became an element in the scandal.
Colson pleaded guilty in 1974 to obstruction of justice in connection with attempts to discredit Ellsberg, though charges were dropped that he actually played a role in the burglary of Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office. Charges related to the actual Watergate burglary and cover-up were also dropped. He served seven months in prison.
Before Colson went to prison he became a born-again Christian, but critics said his post-scandal redemption was a ploy to get his sentence reduced.
Colson stayed with his faith and went on to win praise for his efforts to use it to help others. He later called going to prison a "great blessing."
He created the Prison Fellowship Ministries in 1976 to minister to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families. It runs work-release programs, marriage seminars and classes to help prisoners after they get out.
"You can't leave a person in a steel cage and expect something good to come out of him when he is released," Colson said in 2001.