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Lyons portrayed as failed dealmaker, not law breaker

The Baptist leader is portrayed as a man courted by corporations, whose deals didn't always work out.

The Rev. Henry J. Lyons is shown in court Monday. [Times photo: Brian Baer]

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 26, 1999


LARGO -- The Rev. Henry J. Lyons is a "gatekeeper" to a nation of black Baptists, a leader once coveted by corporations who saw his endorsement as a financial windfall, his lawyer says.


A Ministry in Question: more Times coverage of the Rev. Henry Lyons


But as the president of the National Baptist Convention USA, his lawyers say, Lyons heads a group whose ways are little understood by corporate America.

"The president of the convention really doesn't answer to anyone, but perhaps his maker," lawyer Grady Irvin Jr. told jurors Monday during opening statements in Lyons trial on state grand theft and racketeering charges.

Irvin's opening is the first look at Lyons' defense: the NBC president as a powerful figure who brokers convention business at will; a dealmaker who, like many business people, sometimes failed. Yet, Irvin said, his failures were never criminal.

"Failure is not a crime," Irvin said. "Because a project doesn't work, because a plan doesn't work, doesn't make it a crime. Every business doesn't succeed."

Lawyers for Lyons and co-defendant Bernice Edwards, a former Lyons aide also charged with racketeering, say the pair always had the best interests of the NBC in mind as they entered into agreements with corporations that wanted to tap into the convention's purported 8.5-million members.

But prosecutors said the two were only interested in using the convention's good name to siphon millions of dollars into secret bank accounts.

"That man over there led two lives, two totally different lives," said Assistant State Attorney Bob Lewis, pointing to Lyons. "One of those lives was a public life. But there was a second side to Henry J. Lyons, a side that caused him to be brought here to that seat."

The money, Lewis repeated throughout his opening, was "split and spent" by the pair.

Corporate leaders believed in him "because he was so smooth and appeared to be so sincere."

"You're going to get to see exactly how smooth he is."

Lyons, 57, flanked by a team of four attorneys, entered the courthouse with his wife, Deborah, and a son by his side. He declined to comment, except to say, "This is the day I've been waiting for."

Edwards, 42, of Milwaukee, represented by another lawyer who also gave an opening statement Monday, declined to comment as she entered with her three children.

Irvin portrayed Lyons as the "gatekeeper" to a potentially lucrative pool of consumers that corporations were willing to pay a steep price to tap.

"Open the gates and let us in," Irvin said. "You are Dr. Henry J. Lyons, president of the 8.5-million-member National Baptist Convention. We are corporations selling products. You're the gatekeeper. Open the door and let us in."

To one company that wanted to market credit cards to NBC members, Irvin said, "Henry Lyons' endorsement of their product was more important than Michael Jordan's."

Prosecutors say Lyons' claim of 8.5-million members was a sham. The convention may have had a million or less, they say.

But, Irvin said, "There isn't one person who can take the stand and testify that the National Baptist Convention does not have 8.5-million members."

Irvin said witnesses would help explain the traditions of the NBC and the black church and the broad powers it provides its leaders, powers outsiders may not understand. He also revealed that a witness for the defense would be T.J. Jemison, a former convention president and Lyons rival.

"He was Henry Lyons' opponent. But he's going to come in here and he will tell the truth about the power of the presidency," Irvin said.

Irvin described a picture of Lyons as sometimes disorganized in the way he managed the convention's finances, juggling money between private and convention accounts to pay NBC bills.

At times, he used money from his private savings accounts to pay convention expenses, he said.

Irvin denied that Lyons operated with Edwards any secret accounts, noting that checks drawn on the Baptist Builder Fund, a secret account cited by Assistant State Attorney Lewis, often were sent to convention officials.

"Any of those people could have stood up and yelled at any time," Irvin said.

Irvin also said that the convention's good deeds were often financed by money from the account, disputing accounts that Lyons financed a lavish lifestyle with money laundered through it.

Irvin said Lyons didn't solicit money from corporations. Instead, they came to him. He denied that Lyons sold phony membership lists of the convention to businesses that wanted to send mailings to members.

He said some deals, such as an agreement with the Globe Life and Accident Insurance Co. to market life insurance, made money for the company, despite problems.

Lyons alone faces two grand theft charges, accused of pocketing most of $244,500 given to the convention in 1996 by the Anti-Defamation League to rebuild burned black churches.

But Lyons, Irvin said, was researching which churches needed the cash when news organizations reported the money had not been spent as intended.

Irvin said the ADL set no deadline for distributing money, and that Lyons repaid what he had not given burned churches.

Edwards' attorney, Paul Sisco, scoffed at the notion that a single mother and a preacher from the South outwitted veterans of business to steal money.

"This single mother from Milwaukee entered that corporate world and brought it to its knees?" he said.

Edwards and Lyons are charged with taking more than $3-million from the Loewen Group, one of the world's largest funeral companies. Lyons and the company had entered into an agreement to market funeral plots to convention members.

Prosecutors say the pair swindled more than $1-million from Globe by offering the bogus membership list.

Sisco, however, said the two companies didn't even act like victims, never calling police. He called Loewen the "living, breathing evil embodiment of corporate greed" for using Edwards to get to Lyons and the membership.

A Loewen lawyer attending the trial declined to comment.

 

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