Lyons prosecutors zero in on credit card deal
By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 28, 1999
LARGO -- A year after Union Planters Bank lent $300,000 to the National Baptist Convention USA, someone at the bank noticed a disquieting omission in the latest convention financial statement.
"Frankly, we hoped that somehow . . . the accountants overlooked it," Gary Howlett, former executive vice president of the Nashville, Tenn., bank testified Wednesday in the state racketeering trial of convention president Henry J. Lyons and former aide Bernice Edwards.
Prosecutors say there is a good reason Lyons failed to list the loan -- they say he and his cronies pocketed much of the cash.
Lyons had cut a deal in the spring of 1995 with the bank to market credit cards to members of the convention. The loan would help finance the convention's efforts to market the credit cards. The NBC would even receive profits once its members began signing up, Howlett said.
In fact, the bank expected the NBC to use profits to repay the loan.
But not a penny went to marketing efforts. Instead, prosecutors say, Lyons paid $137,500 to an aide who helped broker the deal, $30,000 to his personal savings account, $1,500 to a "paramour" in Tennessee, and $50,000 to a secret account Lyons alone controlled.
The credit card deal proved disastrous, and the convention defaulted on the loan. Union Planters officials say fewer than 100 convention members signed up.
Howlett testified that the bank thought the loan a safe one. With 8.5-million members, he said, it seemed an easy bet that the convention could raise enough cash to repay the loan even if the credit card deal failed.
But prosecutors say membership claims by Lyons and the NBC were a sham -- the convention actually has a million or fewer members.
Union Planters has sued the convention to recover its loss. To date, the loan has not been repaid.
Howlett said the convention's New York attorney provided Union Planters with a resolution signed by the NBC's general secretary, Roscoe Cooper, assuring the bank Lyons was authorized to carry out the deal.
Prosecutors say Lyons forged Cooper's signature.
In questioning Howlett, defense attorney Denis de Vlaming repeatedly called the $300,000 payment an "advance" rather than a loan. But Howlett said loan documents contradict that contention.
The defense says the credit card deal was simply a business deal gone bad, a matter for civil, not criminal, court.
In other testimony, the president of an Orlando company testified that Lyons hired the company in 1995 to help lure large corporations into marketing deals with the convention.
But Steve Baker, president of Baker Leisure Group, said the company was unable to partner the NBC with even one corporation because the NBC repeatedly failed to provide adequate information about its membership.
Today, Bonita Henderson, a former Lyons administrative assistant who said she and the pastor once had an affair, is expected to testify that she created a phony list of convention members for Lyons.
It took prosecutors more than a year to locate Henderson, who disappeared after receiving $150,000 from Lyons. Prosecutors called it hush money.