Date contradicts defense argument
By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 1999
LARGO -- It's a box of banking records that lawyers for Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons say help prove that the minister's supposedly secret bank account wasn't a secret at all.
Lyons' attorneys arrived at his state racketeering trial in Circuit Court Thursday carrying a box of records from the Baptist Builder's Fund, a bank account prosecutors say Lyons used to launder millions of dollars.
The records were sent by Lyons to financial auditors for his National Baptist Convention USA before the July 6, 1997, Tierra Verde fire set by Lyons' wife that touched off state and federal investigations of Lyons, his attorneys said.
That would prove Lyons, the convention's president, wasn't trying to hide the account from anybody, his lawyers said.
The records were located this week by the convention's general secretary, Roscoe Cooper Jr., who said he got them in 1997 from the firm of Marlin and Edmondson, the convention's former independent auditor.
But the timing, prosecutors say, just doesn't work.
Assistant State Attorney Bob Lewis leafed through checks and check stubs from the box as he cross-examined Cooper Thursday. He turned Cooper's attention to a copy of one check in particular.
Lewis asked: "What's the date on that check, Mr. Cooper?"
"July 27, 1997."
If that check is dated July 27, 1997, isn't that weeks after the fire?
"Then Marlin and Edmondson couldn't possibly have had these records before July 27?" Lewis said.
"It's highly unlikely," Cooper said.
"It's more than highly unlikely, it's impossible," Lewis said.
"Yes," Cooper acknowledged.
With that, prosecutors appeared to damage a defense theory that, if true, certainly would have weakened the state's racketeering case against Lyons and his former aide Bernice Edwards.
Prosecutors say Lyons funnelled more than $5-million of convention cash through the Baptist Builder's Fund over a two-year period and used the money to finance a life of luxury.
Lyons opened the account shortly after winning the convention presidency in late 1994, and its existence is not noted in NBC 1995 and 1996 audits.
L. Joe Edmondson, a former NBC auditor, testified earlier during the trial that Lyons mailed him the box after the Tierra Verde fire. He said he mailed it back to the convention unopened after Cooper called in October 1997 saying federal authorities had subpoenaed the records.
By then, Edmondson said, he had quit working for the NBC because auditors hadn't been told of the account.
After Edmondson's testimony, defense attorneys asked Cooper if he still had the box. He located it this week.
In other testimony, the convention's special projects director said he worked with Lyons in early 1997 to help locate burned black churches that needed money to rebuild.
In 1996, the Anti-Defamation League gave Lyons $244,500 to distribute to churches. Prosecutors say Lyons instead pocketed most of it.
Lyons' defense is that he was holding the money while searching for truly needy churches.
Russell Odom, a former convention pastor, said he worked on the effort but said it proved difficult to find the churches that needed help.
"I would say it's not an easy task," he said. "It requires work."
During cross-examination, Lewis then noted that Lyons accepted most of the money from the ADL at a ceremony in New York City to which Lyons brought three pastors from burned churches.
"It was easy for him," Lewis said, "to find three pastors to go to New York."