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Witness tells of secret checking account

She says hundreds of thousands of dollars were wired into a checking account she opened with Bernice Edwards.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 2, 1999


LARGO -- Josephine Hicks said she wanted to help a needy friend cash a few checks in June 1995, so she and Bernice Edwards opened a checking account together at a Milwaukee bank.

Hicks knew that Edwards had faced financial difficulties. Hicks once lent her $3,000 because Edwards, whom she knew as Bree Jones, claimed she owed back taxes and was about to be evicted from her home.

In 1996, however, Edwards' grim financial world turned around. A bank official called Hicks about the hundreds of thousands of dollars being wired into her account.

"I said, "Is it legal?' " Hicks testified Monday in the state racketeering trial of Edwards and Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons. "Where did it come from? My Social Security number is on that account, and I don't want to be involved with Internal Revenue or anything."

She ordered the account closed.

Prosecutors say Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, and Edwards, his former aide, laundered $1.6-million through the secret account, which was opened under the name J.H. Associates.

At the time, Edwards was on probation for a federal embezzlement conviction. A condition of her supervision was that she open no bank accounts without permission.

Lyons, 57, and Edwards, 42, who still lives in Milwaukee, are charged with operating a scheme to swindle more than $4-million from corporations that wanted to market products with the convention's members. They diverted much of the money, prosecutors say, to themselves.

Hicks, who owns a Milwaukee diner, said she met Edwards in 1994. Around Christmas of that year, Hicks said, "She told me she was in a bad situation."

She began cashing checks on her business bank account for Edwards, who said she lost her ID. Hicks has said she decided to open the J.H. Associates account with Edwards because some of the checks bounced and she didn't want to mess up her diner account.

When they opened the account at Guaranty Bank, officials refused to allow Edwards to be a signatory on the account because she said she couldn't provide a Social Security number, Hicks said.

Days later, Edwards returned to the bank to cash a check. This time, a bank employee allowed her to sign a signatory card allowing her to cash checks.

Hicks said she didn't learn until shortly before testifying Monday that Edwards had the ability to cash checks on the account.

Deborah Gil, the branch manager where the account was opened, said Hicks identified Edwards as her daughter. She said Edwards frequently cashed large checks at the bank. Prosecutors say $126,000 from the account was used by Lyons and Edwards in early 1995 to help make the down payment on the $700,000 Tierra Verde house the pair purchased together.

Seymour Gordon, the lawyer who oversaw the closing of the sale, said Lyons said he was unmarried, causing Gordon to strike the words "married man" from the mortgage. Otherwise, Lyons' wife, Deborah, would have been asked to sign the document. "There were other documents showing him as a single man, so it all made sense to me," Gordon said.

In other testimony, the former executive director of the NBC's headquarters -- the Baptist World Center in Nashville, Tenn. -- said Lyons fired him in 1996 after he began inquiring about business deals Lyons was entering into.

Willie McClung said he found out about a deal between Lyons and a Tennessee bank to market credit cards to NBC members when a bank official called on him asking for convention financial records. "I was getting involved in something I didn't understand," McClung said.

He said Lyons was angry when he learned the bank had called him. "He said the bank wasn't supposed to talk to me at all."

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