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Edwards sentenced to prison in tax evasion

Because of her infant's poor health, the judge did not order the former National Baptist Convention publicist taken into custody immediately.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 26, 1999


TAMPA -- This time, the woman whose association with Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons helped lead them to ruin did not get a second chance.

Instead, Bernice V. Edwards, acquitted of racketeering by a state jury in February, ended up with the same thing as the minister to whom she was once linked:

Prison for a misbegotten life of luxury.

A federal judge sentenced the 42-year-old former Lyons' aide to 21 months in prison to be followed by three years of probation.

The judge rejected a bid for leniency by Edwards on Monday, seven months after the former National Baptist Convention publicist pleaded guilty to two federal tax evasion charges for failing to report $500,000 in convention income.

U.S. District Judge Henry Lee Adams Jr., citing the uncertain health of Edwards' son, Justice, born prematurely 12 weeks ago, did not order her immediately taken into custody. Her prison term will begin within 90 days at a date not yet set.

He also ordered Edwards to undergo mental health treatment, pay the Internal Revenue Service $109,000 in back taxes and to open no bank accounts or seek any credit while serving probation. He waived any fine.

Adams, who did not comment about his decision, could have sentenced Edwards to between 18 and 24 months under federal sentencing guidelines.

This was Edwards' second sentencing before a federal judge. In 1994, a judge granted her a measure of leniency when he sentenced her to house arrest and probation in Milwaukee on an embezzlement charge for stealing $60,000 from an alternative high school.

But this time, a different judge sentenced her to prison despite pleas from Edwards for house arrest or probation a second time. She said her four children, facing personal and financial travails, need their mother.

"I'm very remorseful for the acts I pleaded guilty to and I take full responsibility for them," Edwards told Adams as she wiped tears from her eyes. "I'm here to plead with you for my little children.

"Who will take care of my children? I don't have anyone to take care of them."

Her oldest child, Jessica Jones, 18, said her family has already suffered enough.

"Our only source of income is our mother," Jones said. "She has been our foundation and support. . . . There have been nights we've been on our knees praying to God that our circle will not be broken."

But federal prosecutor Ken Lawson said Edwards had already been given a second chance when she avoided prison on the embezzlement conviction in 1994.

"Granted, her children have problems," Lawson said. "Granted, they need their mother. But what they need is a mother who obeys the law."

Lawson had asked the judge to delay the sentencing four weeks because Edwards had skipped an appointment that morning to take a polygraph test as prosecutors asked her about assets she is supposed to surrender.

Her lawyers say she is hiding nothing but simply couldn't attend a hastily arranged polygraph.

But the judge, noting Edwards' family was already gathered for sentencing, refused to delay.

Anyway, Adams said, her plea can always be withdrawn if prosecutors deem she hasn't been truthful about her possible assets.

"I, for the life of me, can't understand why this stuff isn't already done," the judge chided prosecutors.

Adams recommended to federal prison officials that Edwards, who lives in Milwaukee, serve her time in a prison near Cleveland, where her lawyers said she has friends and family who can help care for her children.

David T. Weisbrod, Edwards' Tampa lawyer, said the father of his client's newborn child, who lives outside the Tampa Bay area, has been helping care for the child.

He did not say who will care for Edwards' other children, including Joshua, 12, and Jessie, 14, while their mother is imprisoned.

What began on July 6, 1997, with a fire set by Lyons' wife, Deborah, at the $700,000 Tierra Verde home her husband and Edwards bought together, is now all but ended after more than two years and thousands of hours of state and federal investigations.

What remains for all but one person in Lyons' inner circle is the serving of punishment:

Lyons, 57, is serving a 5 1/2-year prison sentence for his state racketeering and grand theft convictions for swindling millions of dollars from corporations and charity using the convention's name.

After he was convicted in February, Lyons pleaded guilty to separate federal fraud and tax evasion charges. He was sentenced to four years and three months on those charges. But since the term is concurrent with state charges, it didn't add a day to his sentence.

Brenda Harris, the convention's meeting planner who admitted an affair with Lyons, received 18 months of probation in July after pleading guilty to a federal charge that she failed to report the commission of a crime.

Prosecutors said she failed to report to a bank that her down payment for a $340,000 home in Brentwood, Tenn., came from a slush fund controlled by Lyons.

Deborah Lyons, whose arson at the exclusive Tierra Verde home led to her husband's fall from influence, was the first to have her case resolved when in October 1997 she received five years of probation after pleading guilty to arson.

Now, just one case connected to Lyons remains unresolved.

Burleigh Ashby Hobson, a deacon at Lyons' Metropolitan Baptist Church, was indicted by a federal grand jury in August on charges of conspiring with Lyons and others to submit forged documents to the federal government to obtain money for a home for the elderly in St. Petersburg.

Hobson is free on bail as he awaits trial.

As Edwards walked to the federal courthouse Monday, she did not shed the stoic demeanor that has served her through two years of publicity. She ignored questions from reporters as camera crews crowded her and her family.

But when she spotted a familiar reporter in a parking garage an hour before her sentencing, away from the cameras, she smiled and nodded her head. She refused to answer questions but offered, "I'm doing just fine."

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