Charlie Powell was the Chairman of the East St. Louis Democratic Party, but in many ways he was the city's political Godfather too.
Powell, a former city councilman, ran the East St. Louis political machine. He could make a phone call to the right person and get someone a job, sometimes it was the kind of job that could jumpstart a career. He was known for helping poor people pay their electric bills.
He was also a crook.
Powell was convicted in two seperate criminal investigations during the last few years; a vote fraud scheme and illegally handling asbestos during work on an East St. Louis building. He was found guilty during the vote fraud trial. He pleaded guilty to the asbestos related charge.
Charlie Powell served about 2 years in county jail and several prisons. The former football star and coach called his time behind bars "scary."
I tried to interview Powell several times after he was indicted, but he always politely refused to talk about the allegations. He also declined to be interviewed in prison.
So, why talk now?
A few weeks ago, I learned Charlie Powell was going to be hired as the Assistant Principal at an East St. Louis charter school. The school was the focus of many of our stories that exposed problems in the city's school district. Vickie Forby, the Executive Director of Emerson Park Development, the agency running the school, asked him if he'd do the interview, and he agreed.
I told them I would ask any question I considered fair and reasonable. I made no promises, only that I would try to provide context and perspective.
In the interview with Forby that meant allowing her to explain why she hired Powell as an Assistant Principal, even though he was a convicted felon living in a halfway house. We also provided additional context to show Powell's qualifications and the role he could play in helping the school.
In the excerpts we aired from my interview with Powell, he talked about how he could help the students, but he also described how the party leaders handed out cash on election day, and admitted that he assumed it would be used to buy votes.
The interview with Charlie Powell is significant because it provides rare insight into a deeply private man who preferred conducting business in backrooms and on quiet streets. It was his first time to sit in front of a television camera with bright lights surrounding him.
In many ways, he behaved like a reluctant witness, a guy who knew what he should say and what he wanted to say, even though it wasn't always the same thing. Still, I always gain a certain amount of respect for people who sit down for an interview knowing they'll be asked questions they don't want to answer.
The once powerful political Godfather of East St. Louis has learned a great deal about crime and justice, and himself during the last few years. He's clearly angry, perhaps a little bitter, but he seems determined to put it behind him. He'll recover from his self-inflicted wounds in an office at the charter school, a place that desperately needs positive role models, perhaps even a hero or two.
East St. Louis is infamous for being a hotbed of corruption, but it's also a community that believes in redemption.
Forgiveness is a powerful thing. It allows people to start over, even if they have betrayed our trust.
It's a gift we must earn.
What will Charlie Powell do with this gift?