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The creed was greed

National | Florida jury finds church leader Lyons guilty of theft and racketeering; next up, the federal trial

Issue: "Alan Keyes: Can he win?," March 13, 1999

Shortly after St. Petersburg, Fla., pastor Henry Lyons rose to power as president of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., in 1994, the NBC's membership suddenly grew by half a million. The former regime's letterhead contained the figure of 8 million members. On orders from Mr. Lyons, his secretary wielded scissors and paste and increased the figure to 8.5 million on the new letterhead.

Although conflicting trial testimony suggested the NBC was not that big, Bonita Henderson's cut-and-paste job guaranteed that the NBC's reputation as the nation's largest predominantly black denomination would remain secure-and would be an attractive bargaining chip Mr. Lyons used to help lure businesses into deals with, they thought, the NBC. Instead, the firms ended up with fake lists, NBC documents with forged signatures, and disastrous financial results. And the minister and his mistresses-not the NBC-walked off with the lion's share of the proceeds, almost $5 million.

Members of the six-person, all-white jury in Largo, Fla., that convicted Mr. Lyons of two counts of grand theft and a racketeering charge on Feb. 27 said there was no question about what their verdict would be after they examined the evidence. Most of their 13 hours of deliberation at the end of the six-week trial were spent considering the fate of co-defendant Bernice Edwards, 42, a Lyons aide and ex-convict named in the racketeering charge only. Two jurors who thought she was only a patsy for Mr. Lyons were joined in a not-guilty verdict by the other four, who finally agreed the state had not decisively proved the case against her.

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But Mr. Lyons, 57, pastor of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, faces from three to seven years of imprisonment under state guidelines. Sentencing is expected sometime in April. Also in April, Mr. Lyons and Miss Edwards are scheduled for a more serious trial in federal court, he on 54 counts and she on 25, for theft, racketeering, wire and mail fraud, money laundering, tax evasion, and other charges.

The two counts of grand theft against him involved pocketing most of the $244,500 the Anti-Defamation League gave him in 1996 to distribute to burned black churches. He raided church accounts and dipped into his own savings to make belated restitution, according to evidence introduced by prosecutors. The racketeering charge stated that Mr. Lyons and Miss Edwards had swindled more than $4 million from corporations seeking to market cemetery products, life insurance policies, and credit cards to NBC members.

"Their creed was greed," prosecutor Jim Hellickson declared to the jury.

Shortly after becoming NBC president in 1994, Mr. Lyons opened a Baptist Builders Fund account in a local bank. He had sole control of it; its existence was unknown to NBC board members and auditors. More than $5 million flowed through the account in a two-year period, said veteran fraud investigator David Kurash, who rebuilt missing records from subpoenaed bank microfilms. All but two of the checks deposited in it were payable to the NBC, but much of the money was used for non-NBC purposes. For example, $1.6 million was funneled into a third-party Milwaukee bank account controlled by Miss Edwards, and much of the money was laundered back to Mr. Lyons.

Mr. Lyons used the money to buy resort vacations (several with Miss Edwards), luxury cars, jewelry, and other expensive gifts. He sent over $800,000 to two former lovers. He also bought a $700,000 home in his and Miss Edwards's name in 1995; Deborah Lyons, his third and present wife, set it on fire in July 1997 when she found out about it while the pair were traveling in Africa. The fire triggered the investigation that led to Mr. Lyons's legal troubles and last month's verdict. She has since said she forgives her husband for his infidelity.

Defense witness E.V. Hill, a prominent Los Angeles pastor, NBC board member, and chairman of an NBC ethics commission that investigated allegations of wrongdoing by Mr. Lyons in late 1997, testified: "We found no unexplained income or expenditures according to the records." On cross-examination, he acknowledged that the commission had only two weeks in which to do its work and that it never examined the Baptist Builders Fund. He said convention delegates voted against a wider investigation.

The defense centered on several contentions: The ADL never gave Mr. Lyons a deadline for distributing the fire-fund money; the arrangements with corporations were failed business deals and belong in civil, not criminal, court; the NBC presidents always have had discretionary control of convention finances; Mr. Lyons violated no NBC laws or rules, and the state should not interfere with how the NBC conducts its affairs.

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