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Money for burned churches opens Lyons trial testimony

Prosecutors allege that most of a $225,000 donation intended for burned churches in the South went to the Rev. Henry J. Lyons.


© St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 1999

LARGO -- For the leaders of the Anti-Defamation League, the specter of burned black churches across the South provided an uneasy reminder of torched German synagogues during the Holocaust.

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

The ADL raised more than $200,000 to help rebuild the churches and then turned to the man it thought could identify those most in need: Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons.

"We always maintained that if people had spoken out in Germany in 1938, there may have been some movement against the Holocaust," Mark Medin, the ADL's director of national leadership, testified Tuesday in Lyons' grand theft and racketeering trial.

The ADL gave Lyons a $225,000 check in late 1996 to distribute. Within weeks, Lyons wrote the ADL saying he had disbursed the money to six churches.

"We were delighted ... and felt very proud for having helped," Medin said.

In fact, prosecutors say, Lyons pocketed most of that cash and $19,500 more the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith provided with a second donation.

In the first day of testimony in the state racketeering trial of Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, and his former aide Bernice Edwards, prosecutors presented the heart of their grand theft case against Lyons, who alone faces two grand theft charges.

They showed jurors a videotape of Lyons, accompanied by the pastors of three burned Alabama churches, accepting the money from the ADL during a ceremony in New York City.

He told ADL leaders that his convention has "immediately determined where these funds should go and the wheels that are squeaking loudest ... we will give the funds to those churches."

But Lyons' mind, prosecutors say, wasn't on charity. They say he used the money to pay his credit card bill, redecorate his house, deposit $60,000 in a personal bank account and send cash to a lover in Tennessee.

Defense attorney Grady Irvin Jr. told jurors that Lyons was investigating which churches truly needed the money. All of it, he said, eventually would have been distributed. Medin acknowledged the ADL had not told Lyons how quickly to distribute the money.

At the ADL's request, Lyons returned the money he had not distributed after news reports that churches had not received all of it.

The pastors of the churches Lyons said had received the money testified one after the other, all saying they either received nothing from the Baptist convention or far less than Lyons reported.

The Rev. Levi Pickens, who accompanied Lyons to New York for the ADL meeting, said his church already had been rebuilt when Lyons presented him to the group as a pastor whose flock needed help.

In the video, Pickens told the ADL about the hardship of finding another building to worship in because "everything that we had invested burned down into ashes."

The Rev. Arthur Coleman, a second pastor who made the trip and whose church also already was rebuilt, testified that Lyons instructed Pickens to lay it on with the ADL. "He told him to make it seem a little badder," Coleman said.

Lyons distributed $10,000 to the churches of the three pastors who went to New York with him and $3,000 each to the pastors themselves.

Some of the pastors who never received money testified that their churches were rebuilt using insurance money or other sources, a point the defense may use to show they were not in need of the ADL money. That may bolster a defense argument that Lyons was researching who really needed the money.

Defense attorneys also suggested that the letter Lyons sent to the ADL saying its donations had been disbursed had been sent in error. But the secretary he dictated the letter to testified she didn't recall Lyons telling her not to mail the letter.

Prosecutors accuse Lyons, 57, and Edwards, 42, of Milwaukee of stealing more than $4-million from corporations that wanted to tap into a nation of black Baptists that Lyons led. The money, prosecutors say, financed a lavish lifestyle for the pair.


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