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It's time for Lyons to step into Caesar's arena


© St. Petersburg Times, published January 11, 1999

This morning, in a Pinellas County courtroom, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons will start the process of rendering unto Caesar.

Lyons should appreciate the reference. It comes from Matthew: Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's.

Now, over in the spiritual neck of the woods, it might well be that the president of the National Baptist Convention USA has won the forgiveness of his members for his transgressions.

That's their business.

It may even be that Lyons has won the forgiveness of, shall we say, higher authorities.

That's his own private business.

But this morning we come to a more precise question:

Did Lyons violate chapters 895.03 (racketeering) and 812.04 (grand theft) of the Florida Statutes?

That's the public's business.

As with any high-profile trial, it is useful to revisit the rules of the game. The first thing to remember is that, this morning, Lyons is an innocent man. He is as legally innocent as you and me. He swims in innocence; he bathes in it.

The only way that Lyons will become guilty is if the state of Florida, through the office of State Attorney Bernie McCabe, convinces a jury of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

You might be thinking: "But this is a no-brainer. The guy is guilty as sin. Anybody can see it."

But that is what some people said about O.J. Simpson. That is what some people said about the cops who beat up Rodney King. That is what some people said about, say, William Kennedy Smith. The list of high-profile cases where "everybody knew" the defendant was guilty is long.

Lyons is not on trial for being a sinner or for getting a lot of bad publicity. He is not on trial for living the high life. It is not a crime to have a fancy house, a nice car, a diamond ring. He is not on trial for having an affair or being a hypocrite.

The racketeering charge is based on the specific accusation that Lyons swindled millions of dollars out of big corporations, mostly by inflating the membership numbers for the National Baptist Convention.

The grand theft charges accuse Lyons of stealing thousands of dollars that were meant to help burned-down black churches.

The defense Lyons mounts should be interesting. Even if Lyons made grossly inflated claims of membership, how much responsibility did the companies doing business with Lyons have to check it out? Were they so eager to grab a piece of the black dollar that they simply made stupid decisions?

"They're businessmen who were out to exploit the black community," one of Lyons' former lawyers, Anthony Battaglia, said last year. When the deals went sour, they set out to blame Lyons for their own failings, he said.

Maybe so. But the state's affidavit against Lyons charges that his mailing list was "a complete hoax." According to the state, Lyons even told his employees to make one up.

As for the church money, part of Lyons' defense probably will be that Lyons paid it back. But it looks crummy that Lyons didn't pay it back until after it became public. He even wrote the donors of the money, the Anti-Defamation League, naming six churches that supposedly got the proceeds. Not true.

This is only the beginning of Lyons' legal troubles. Later this year, he is scheduled to go on trial on a much broader federal indictment -- 54 counts accusing him of mail fraud, wire fraud, bank fraud, tax evasion, extortion, money laundering and conspiracy.

Early on in the scandal, Lyons had to choose between survival in his church organization or devoting all his energy to protecting himself against Caesar. He chose the church first, and he survived. But now it is Caesar's turn at bat.

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