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Executive says company put trust in Lyons

The Loewen Group's Larry Miller answers a question Thursday from prosecutor Bill Loughery. [Times photo: Brian Baer]

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 5, 1999


LARGO -- They were top executives of a $1-billion company, men with long careers in finance, operating in a world where the bottom line and accountability rule.


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


Then the executives of the Loewen Group, the world's second-largest funeral company, met the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA.

The rules changed.

"We had enormous respect for Dr. Lyons and had no reason to doubt his sincerity," said Larry Miller, president of Loewen's cemetery division. "Quite honestly, I had been told he was the single most important and powerful black man in America."

Miller testified Thursday in the state racketeering trial of Lyons and his former aide Bernice Edwards, telling jurors that Loewen did for Lyons what it would not have done for others in the business world.

The company, which hoped to market funeral plots to the convention's supposed 8.5-million members, sent the minister hundreds of thousands of dollars without an upfront accounting of how the money was being spent.

"We were acting on trust and faith and a belief in Dr. Lyons," Miller said in Circuit Court.

That trust, prosecutors say, cost the Canadian company dearly. Of all Lyons' and Edwards' alleged victims, Loewen lost the most money -- $3.2-million. Half the state's racketeering case involves the company. Authorities say Lyons and Edwards used the money to finance a lavish lifestyle of homes, jewelry and expensive cars.

Defense attorneys say Loewen's involvement with the convention was simply a business deal that didn't work, not theft.

Defense attorney Jay Hebert asked, "Did you call the cops?"

Said Miller, "Not to my knowledge."

The courtship between Lyons and Loewen began in early 1995. The company was eager to break into the black funeral market, and a union with Lyons and his NBC promised sure profits.

Miller said they talked about the convention forming an affiliate company of sales counselors who, as NBC members working through the convention's churches, would market Loewen funeral products.

"It was good for Loewen, it was good for the consumer, it was good for the individuals who were employed, and it was good for the convention," Miller said.

On Aug. 29, 1995, the company and Lyons signed a contract for the plan. But about two months later, the company suffered a severe blow. It lost a breach of contract lawsuit in Mississippi on Nov. 6, and a jury awarded $500-million in damages against Loewen.

Miller testified Lyons and Edwards said the company had been "railroaded," and for $2-million they could use their influence to hire the right investigators and lawyers in Mississippi to see if there had been jury tampering.

"To overturn a $500-million verdict, $2-million would be a small price to pay," he said.

The company agreed to the plan, though Miller said Loewen did not agree to pay any money until the experts were lined up by Lyons.

Soon, however, Loewen decided to settle the case for $175-million.

Lyons and Edwards, Miller said, were furious and claimed they had spent the money promised for their services. They demanded repayment.

Still seeing potential riches in its partnership with the NBC, Miller said, the company wired $500,000 to Lyons, hoping he would forward receipts. Miller said he never did.

In March, Miller said, Lyons and Edwards demanded $500,000 more, and the company reluctantly paid after Lyons threatened to hold a news confence on the steps of the nation's Capitol and denounce Loewen to the world.

"I was angry and disappointed," Miller said. "I was concerned this was more about money than intended."

 

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