Defense: Lyons had carte blanche
By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 1999
LARGO -- The key to understanding Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons, defense attorneys say, is understanding the traditions of the black church and the National Baptist Convention USA.
"We're a church, a religious organization," convention pastor Lacy Curry testified at Lyons' state racketeering trial Wednesday. "The way we do business may not be according to the (ways) of other institutions."
Lyons' defense to state grand theft and racketeering charges opened Wednesday just as his lawyers had promised: with a swift lesson for an all-white jury about the customs of the black church.
The first three defense witnesses, all convention pastors, said they think Lyons is innocent of wrongdoing and a good man who operates as NBC presidents have always operated.
"I cannot think of anything he did under this administration that the previous presidents did not have the authority to do," said Curry, a Chicago preacher who has been involved with the convention since 1930.
Lyons is free to broker deals with corporations ready to tap into the supposed 8.5-million members of the convention, and he is just as free to richly profit from those deals, Curry said.
"There's nothing in our convention that would prohibit that," he testified.
Convention presidents always have been free to open bank accounts, to dispense convention funds to those in need without prior approval from the convention's board, he said.
But prosecutors say Lyons, 57, and co-defendant and former aide Bernice Edwards, 42, kept convention leaders in the dark and used that sweeping autonomy to swindle more than $4-million from corporations.
Prosecutors asked Curry: Was it the custom of the NBC to allow its president to enrich himself with convention funds, to spend the convention's cash on himself?
Curry acknowledged, "No, we did not expect that of him."
Curry was cut short at one point by Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer when he introduced what may have been the strongest hint of race yet interjected into the trial.
"We're only a few minutes out of slavery," he said. "You can't expect us to have . . . a perfected manner of operation."
The judge stopped him. "This is a court of law," she said. "I will not allow a witness to lecture this courtroom."
One of the cornerstones of Lyons' defense is that his own convention has exonerated him and denied that he misappropriated convention funds.
The Rev. E.V. Hill of Los Angeles testified he headed a convention ethics commission that investigated allegations of wrongdoing by Lyons in the months after newspaper revelations about the president's financial dealings.
Hill said the commission in late 1997 examined the bank accounts of the convention and its various auxiliaries in search of irregularities.
"I am now testifying we found no unexplained income or expenditures according to the records," he said.
But Hill admitted the commission had just two weeks to conduct an investigation and did not speak to any of the corporations that are alleged to have lost money in their dealings with Lyons.
He also said the commission never examined Lyons' Baptist Builder's Fund, which prosecutors say was a secret account Lyons used to launder millions of dollars intended for convention coffers.
The convention voted against a wider investigation, Hill said.
If given authority for a larger investigation, Hill told Assistant State Attorney Bob Lewis, "We would have done everything you all are doing."
The Rev. H.L. Harvey of Cincinnati told jurors he had no problem with the convention president earning money from corporate deals that ultimately benefited the NBC. "He ought to be," the minister said.
Harvey, the NBC statistician under the administration of former NBC president T.J. Jemison, said he first came up with an estimate of 8-million convention members about 1992 and said he believes the number is accurate.
Prosecutors say Lyons and Edwards sold either bogus or non-existent mailing lists of NBC members to corporations that wanted to market everything from funeral plots to life insurance and credit cards.
Asked if a list of convention members existed, Harvey said, "Oh, God, no."
Baptist pastors typically keep a close guard on any list of their churches' members, and Harvey said it would be impossible for anyone to gather an actual list of names and addresses.
Harvey, who has no formal training as a statistician, said his number was an estimate, based on interviews with state convention leaders and with pastors attending national NBC gatherings.
Would he himself ever provide Lyons or anyone else a list with the names of the members of his own church?