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Lyons colleague pleads guilty to reduced charge

Burleigh Ashby Hobson avoids trial on 10 federal counts by pleading to a single felony.

By LARRY DOUGHERTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 22, 2000


TAMPA -- A church deacon who was accused along with the Rev. Henry J. Lyons in a fraud scheme pleaded guilty Friday morning to a lesser charge and will avoid a trial next week in federal court.

Burleigh Ashby Hobson, 64, pleaded guilty to one count of failing to report a felony. In return, federal prosecutors agreed to drop a 10-count indictment charging Hobson in a fraud involving Bethel Village, a planned home for the elderly in St. Petersburg.

Lyons, the former National Baptist Convention USA Inc. president now serving 51/2 years for racketeering and grand theft, was ordered to be a witness in Hobson's trial.

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to say Friday whether Hobson's plea meant the end of the investigation into Lyons' administration. The case has so far led to prison sentences of 51 months for Lyons; and 21 months for former NBC publicist Bernice V. Edwards, who pleaded guilty to tax evasion in federal court after her acquittal in the state case.

Former NBC meetings planner Brenda Harris got 18 months of federal probation after she pleaded guilty to failing to report a felony.

The U.S. Attorney's Office spokesman declined to speculate whether Hobson would be a candidate for probation, having pleaded guilty to the same charge. Unlike plea agreements in state court, federal plea agreements routinely carry no recommended sentence.

Hobson's attorney, T.J. Fitzgerald, declined to speculate on a possible sentence. The statutory maximum is three years in prison. No sentencing date for Hobson was available Friday.

Hobson was indicted last year for allegedly conspiring with Lyons and others to submit forged documents to the federal government in support of Bethel Village. Plans called for an 84-bed assisted-living facility next door to Lyons' church, Bethel Metropolitan Baptist.

When Lyons pleaded guilty to federal charges last March, he said Hobson helped him gather letters in support of the project that bore the forged signature of a top NBC official. The men were seeking $5.4-million in HUD mortgage insurance for the project.

According to Hobson's plea agreement, Hobson became aware of the misstatements to HUD in late 1997 but did not disclose his knowledge when he was questioned by a federal agent in December 1997.

The 10 federal charges that were dismissed carried a maximum sentence of 50 years.

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