Charles Colson, a Watergate scandal conspirator who emerged from prison to become an evangelical Christian leader, died on Saturday. He was 80 years old.
Colson, who served seven months in prison for master-minding dirty tricks during the Watergate scandal, died from complications resulting from a brain hemorrhage at Inova Fairfax hospital in Virginia, his ministry said.
A self-described “hatchet” man for former US president Richard Nixon, Colson compiled an infamous “enemies list” of major political opponents of the president, including politicians, journalists and activists. Illustrating his ruthless nature, Colson had a sign in his office that read: “When you’ve got ’em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow,” according to various accounts.
The former US marine captain, who served as Nixon’s special counsel from 1969 to 1973, played a key role in the president’s downfall in the wake of one of the US’ worst political scandals.
During Nixon’s 1972 re-election bid, Colson hired CIA intelligence officer and fellow Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt to head a special unit known as the “White House Plumbers” to plug information leaks that could hurt the president.
He was also accused of ordering a burglary at the office of a psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers, which revealed secrets about the Vietnam War.
Both Colson and Hunt were part of the “Watergate Seven” defendants indicted in 1974 for crimes linked to the break-in at the Democratic headquarters two years earlier at the Watergate office complex in Washington.
Colson was sent to prison after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice.
He said he experienced a religious awakening behind bars that led him to spend the rest of his life organizing what became the world’s largest prison ministry, Prison Fellowship. His 1976 memoir Born Again discussed his religious experience.
Colson lobbied lawmakers for greater religious freedom, both in and out of prisons.
His efforts culminated in passage of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, aimed at preventing laws that limit the free exercise of religion and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which aimed to avoid burdens on prisoners’ ability to worship.
Colson also played a key role in convincing the US Congress to pass the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003.
He was overcome with dizziness while speaking on March 30 at the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, a Christian teaching and training center he founded. He underwent surgery, showed some signs of recovery, but then suffered a relapse, according to his Web site.
US Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell hailed Colson’s life as “a constant and necessary reminder to those of us in and out of public office of the seductions of power and the rewards of service.”
“His famous redemption story and tireless advocacy on behalf of the marginalized and the outcast have called all of us to a deeper reflection on our lives and priorities,” McConnell added.