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Lyons denies he wrote letter

Henry Lyons takes the stand Tuesday, before the judge but not the jury, to testify about the authenticity of a piece of evidence in his trial.

photo

Rev. Henry Lyons testifies Tuesday about a letter prosecutors say he wrote.
[Photo from video courtesy
of WTVT-Ch. 13]

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 10, 1999


LARGO -- The jury was gone and most spectators had already left the courtroom late Tuesday when the Rev. Henry J. Lyons did something he hadn't been expected to do for at least another week -- if ever.


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


He raised his right hand, swore to tell the truth and took the stand in his state racketeering trial.

Lyons testified briefly to help determine whether prosecutors can enter into evidence a letter purportedly written by him. In the letter, Lyons offers to sell a list of his National Baptist Convention USA's supposed 8.5-million members to Heart and Soul magazine, published by Rodale Press.

Lyons said he didn't write the letter. To convince the judge to exclude it as evidence, his attorneys put him on the stand to deny authorship.

During 10 minutes of testimony, Lyons said no computer list of the convention's supposed 8.5-million members existed either at the time the letter is dated -- April 22, 1995 -- or in July 1995 when he met with representatives of Rodale in Emmaus, Pa.

photo
Defense attorney Denis de Vlaming shows David Kurash a document during his testimony at Henry Lyons' trial Tuesday. Kurash refuted defense claims that Lyons was just a sloppy bookkeeper. [Times photo: Brian Baer]


Lyons said Rodale paid for space at one of the NBC's annual conventions -- not for a mailing list.

Representatives of the Globe Accident and Life Insurance Co. testified earlier in the trial that beginning in June 1995 Lyons told them such a list existed. Globe spent $1-million for a list that prosecutors say was a hoax.

"There is no way a complete list of the convention's 8.5-million members could ever be considered for $50,000," Lyons said. "There's no way $50,000 could pay for it, that's what I'm saying."

Did he talk to Rodale officials about any list, prosecutors asked.

Lyons hesitated. "I could have," he said. "I don't remember. ... I just don't remember talking to them about a lot of details."

photo
Lyons and attorney Grady Irvin listen to testimony of David Kurash. [Times photo: Brian Baer]
Lyons began to say he was in the process of "building" a list when his lawyers objected to prosecutors' line of questioning, stopping him.

Rodale officials say they paid $50,000 for a list of the convention's members. They said they never received what was promised.

The letter, sent to a broker trying to arrange a deal between the convention and Rodale, says the magazine's circulation will increase by 500,000 with a direct mailing to NBC members.

Lyons' testimony is not expected to have a major impact on the trial. The state's racketeering case against him and his former aide Bernice Edwards does not involve any of their dealings with Rodale.

And Lyons' testimony cannot be presented unless he agrees to testify in front of jurors. The state rested its case Tuesday, and defense lawyers, who begin calling witnesses today, say they still do not know if Lyons will testify on his own behalf.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer did not make an immediate ruling about the letter, though she said it appeared to contain details only Lyons and a few others would know.

"It's not as though everyone in the world could write this letter," the judge said.

In other developments Tuesday, Schaeffer threw out one of the elements of the state's racketeering case, telling prosecutors, "This thing stinks. I don't know how you can argue it with a straight face. I'd be mortified."

There are 12 so-called predicate acts composing the state's case against Lyons and nine in the case against Edwards. Just two need be proven for a racketeering conviction, so Schaeffer's decision isn't a major blow to the state.

The act the judge threw out involved the payment of $70,000 to the convention by the Loewen Group, a Canadian funeral company. The money was earmarked for an NBC education fund, but prosecutors say Lyons pocketed most of it and none went to education.

But defense lawyers say Lyons did give $72,000 to Baptist colleges within two months of getting the money in September 1995. Though prosecutors said he had already spent the $70,000 and paid the colleges with other ill-gotten cash coming into his account, Schaeffer disagreed.

"That's not embezzlement," the judge said. "That's not theft."

Earlier, the state's chief investigator in the case, David Kurash, was cross-examined by defense lawyers for most of the day.

Kurash rebutted defense claims that Lyons was nothing more than a sloppy bookkeeper.

"He was not in my judgment sloppy," he said. "He did it for a very good reason. He did it so no one could figure out what was going on. No one."

Defense lawyer Denis de Vlaming asked Kurash if he knew that under Lyons' leadership the convention had paid down the mortgage on its headquarters in Nashville, Tenn., from $6-million to $2-million.

"This thief over here paid more than he had to pay?" de Vlaming said.

"He paid or they would have taken the building away," Kurash answered.

"That's extra money he paid that he could have stolen?" the lawyer said in a mocking tone.

Kurash didn't flinch. "Yes, he could have stolen more than he did."

 

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