A lawsuit filed in St. Clair County Circuit Court alleges that the city’s former political boss is an arsonist who routinely sets fires or pays others to set them so his demolition company can retrieve bricks, steel and wood from burned-out buildings to sell as salvage.
The court document says that, based on “information and belief,” Charles “Charlie” Powell is an arsonist, an allegation the 73-year-old Powell called “unbelievable.”
Powell, owner of Powell’s Demolition and former head of the East St. Louis Democratic Central Committee, served time in federal prison for a 2006 vote fraud conviction and for a 2007 conviction under the federal Clean Air Act involving failure to properly remove asbestos from a building under renovation. He has no criminal history involving arson.
“I just can’t imagine that anyone who knows me would think that’s what I have to do to get a job — burn down somebody’s building,” Powell said in an interview. “Why do I have to burn a building down to get work? I’ve got more work than I can handle. I don’t go around torching other people’s property.”
The suit seeks actual damages in excess of $50,000 and punitive damages. It also accuses Powell of civil trespass, fraud, nuisance and “interference with business expectation.”
Powell said he routinely receives calls from the city and is issued emergency demolition permits to make a site safe immediately after a fire. Powell said he never charges the city to make an emergency demolition and is compensated by the salvage value.
Powell is named as a defendant in the lawsuit filed by attorney Penni S. Livingston of Fairview Heights over a fire on Nov. 21, 2014, at 504 and 506 St. Louis Ave. Robert Betts, former head of regulatory affairs in East St. Louis, also is named in the suit. He could not be reached for comment.
Police and fire department reports listed the origin of the fire as “undetermined” and did not indicate whether arson was suspected. The buildings, which are joined by a common wall, were vacant. The reports are brief and contain few details, but the fire department’s report states “cause under investigation.”
A spokeswoman for the state fire marshal’s office said the agency did not investigate this fire.
According to Livingston’s lawsuit, which is based on a section of civil law known as “conversion,” the plaintiff alleges that Powell and Betts conspired to essentially profit by “wrongfully” retrieving salvage from the two buildings at the St. Louis Avenue location owned separately by Tyrone Hill and Mark Gates. Only Gates is listed as a plaintiff. The buildings were in close proximity to the MetroLink station at 5th and Missouri.
“Mr. Powell either directly started the fire in the building at 506 St. Louis Ave., or he had the fire started at his direction. Mr. Powell has either directly started fires or has hired fires to be started in numerous commercial buildings in East St. Louis since returning to civilian life from prison,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit defines conversion as “...an intentional exercise of dominion or control over property which so seriously interferes with the right of another to control it that the actor may justly be required to pay the other the full value of the property.”
The court file contains no witness statements nor criminal histories, nor what could be considered proof in a criminal court that Powell committed any crimes other than those for which he was convicted and served prison sentences.
No criminal charges have been filed in connection with the fires. Betts is not accused in the lawsuit of setting any fires.
The lawsuit does accuse Betts of profiting from the demolition, and of failing to notify the owners of the impending emergency demolition.
“Upon information and belief, Mr. Betts was likely receiving a kickback for this conduct of issuing permits to Charles Powell,” the civil complaint alleges. However, the lawsuit contains no witness statement or any proof that could be used in a criminal court that Betts is guilty of any criminal conduct in connection to the fire that destroyed the two buildings.
A copy of the $100 emergency demolition permit included in the lawsuit incorrectly listed Powell as the owner of the buildings. The emergency permit, signed by Betts, was issued on the same day of the fire.
As part of the lawsuit’s exhibits, copies of photographs and of an emergency demolition order in the name of Powell’s Demolition were included in the court file. The lawsuit also accuses Powell of leaving the fire-damaged building site in worse shape after removing the salvage, requiring the city to pay another contractor $19,000 to clean it up.
Gates could not be reached for comment. Livingston declined to comment, saying she said everything she had to say in the suit.
Powell is a well-known political figure in East St. Louis Democratic circles, although his power has been diminished since the days when he was sometimes called “The Godfather of East St. Louis.”
In April 2006, shortly before he was to report to federal prison to serve 21 months, he was given a farewell birthday party at Club Illusion in East St. Louis, where St. Clair County Democratic Party notables attended, including circuit court judges and elected county officials.