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Charles Colson dies; was 'evil genius' of Watergate era

WASHINGTON -- He was described as the "evil genius" of the Nixon administration and spent seven months in prison for a Watergate-related conviction.

His proclamations following his release that he was a new man, redeemed by his religious faith, were met with more than skepticism by those angered at the abuses he had perpetrated as one of President Richard Nixon's hatchet men.

But Charles "Chuck" Colson spent the next 35 years steadfast in his efforts to evangelize to prison inmates.

Colson died Saturday at age 80. His 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 was complications from brain surgery at the end of March to remove a clot after he became ill while speaking at a conference.

Colson once famously said he'd walk over his grandmother to get the president elected to a second term. In 1972 the Washington Post called him "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 committee's security director, James W. McCord, and four other men burglarizing the Democratic National Committee offices in 1972 in the Watergate building set off the scandal that led to Nixon's resignation in 1974.

But actions that preceded the break-in resulted in Colson's criminal conviction. He pleaded guilty in 1974 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.

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 after Watergate and went on to win praise -- including the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion -- for his efforts to use it to help others. Colson 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.

While faith was a large part of Colson's message, he also tackled such topics as prison overpopulation and criticized the death penalty, though he thought it could be justified in rare cases.

He said those convicted of nonviolent crimes should be put on community-service projects instead of being locked up.

He wrote more than 20 books, including "Born Again: What Really Happened to the White House Hatchet Man," which was turned into a movie.

Royalties from all his books have gone to his ministry program, as did the $1 million Templeton prize, which he won in 1993.

Colson also wrote a syndicated column, and started his daily radio feature, BreakPoint, which airs on more than 1,000 radio networks, according to the PFM Web site.

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