Edwards guilty of violating her probation
By GRAHAM BRINK, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- Bernice Edwards came to court Friday with her hair coifed and her story well-rehearsed.
She left in handcuffs, returning to prison to serve nine months for violating terms of her probation.
"You are not an honest person," U.S. District Court Judge James D. Whittemore told Edwards, one-time aide to the now-imprisoned Rev. Henry Lyons and the former publicist for the National Baptist Convention USA.
Edwards, released from prison last year after serving 13 months on two tax evasion charges, was in court fighting six charges that she violated her probation. After a full day of testimony, Whittemore found that Edwards misled a church minister she worked for and made false statements to lease an apartment in Ohio.
The judge also ruled that Edwards obtained a loan for $3,700 from a business owner in Akron, Ohio. Edwards' probation terms prohibited her from receiving any loan or line of credit without the permission of her probation officer.
Edwards will serve 27 months of probation upon her release. The judge, among other conditions, banned her from working for any church or church-related business. The judge also ordered psychological counseling for what he called a "personality disorder" manifested by "not being able to tell the truth."
Edwards, 45, has left a trail of debt and deceit that includes at least five bankruptcies and a 1993 embezzling conviction. On Friday, she denied she violated her probation.
"It wasn't my intention to get in any trouble again," she told the judge. ". . . I don't know how I ended up here again."
Federal prosecutor Jay Hoffer asked the judge to consider a longer sentence, one close to two years.
"She's got a history -- a history of fraud and deceit," Hoffer said. "This is one more chapter in that history."
In March 1999, Edwards pleaded guilty to two tax evasion charges for failing to report more than $500,000 in income from the National Baptist Convention USA from 1995 and 1996. She was sentenced to 21 months in prison.
She served 13 months in a federal prison in Indiana before moving to a halfway house in Akron. She spent five months there and started working for the Rev. Leonard T. King at Elizabeth Baptist Church, first as a secretary and then helping start a government-funded job-training program.
In the two most serious probation violation allegations, Edwards was accused of forging King's name on a letter to an apartment complex in September 2001. Then she made false statements by filling out a lease that indicated that King's church would pay the rent.
King testified Friday that he never signed the letter. He said no one at the church authorized Edwards to lease the apartment in the church's name.
Edwards testified that King was wrong. She said King owed her money from the job-training program. By saying she forged the letter, King knew she would get in trouble and he wouldn't have to pay her the thousands of dollars he owed, she said.
A handwriting expert also testified on Edwards' behalf, saying the signature wasn't a fake. Whittemore said he didn't find the expert's testimony convincing.
Edwards' attorney, Timothy Fitzgerald, successfully argued that the evidence did not support three other charges, including one that she failed to make adequate monthly payments toward the $110,000 she owed in restitution.
Whittemore also found that Edwards had not violated her probation by visiting a store in Cleveland and picking out $6,000 worth of furniture.
Edwards, who used the name Bree Jones, was accused of posing as a minister to arrange to buy the furniture. The purchase was not completed. Edwards argued that she was "killing time" while her car was being repaired and that many of her friends know her as Bree.
Whittemore said that Edwards had not signed anything that obligated her to buy the furniture and had not violated the terms of her probation that forbid her from entering into such obligations without the permission of her probation officer.
-- Graham Brink can be reached at (813) 226-3365 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Edwards to remain free on bail -- June 6, 2002
Lyons' aide runs afoul of probation -- May 15, 2002
Edwards sentenced to prison in tax evasion -- October 26, 1999
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