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Only one defendant speaks

Henry Lyons decides not to testify, and his lawyers rest their case. But Bernice Edwards is finally heard from.

Edwards said she was too embarrassed to tell Lyons of a probation sentence she was serving. "I made a mistake. . . . It was not something I was proud of," she said. [Times photo: Brian Baer]

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 19, 1999



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


LARGO -- Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons said he prayed with his wife before deciding Thursday to ignore his desire to testify in his own defense.

"My wife told me to do as my attorneys asked," he said.

The reverend would be silent in his state racketeering trial. But the woman linked to him through 18 months of scandal would not.

The enigmatic Bernice Edwards, who has never publicly uttered a word about the case against her, took the stand. In a soft, calm voice, Edwards led jurors through her days as a struggling probationer who met a minister she would help win the presidency of the National Baptist Convention USA.

Jurors who have listened to 17 days of often number-laden testimony scribbled on their notepads.

As she spoke, Edwards looked confidently back at them.

She said she met Lyons in 1993 at a banquet put on by the women's auxiliary of the Wisconsin state Baptist convention. He was the guest speaker. She presented him a gift on behalf of the group.

It was a brief encounter, but Edwards said others would follow. She admired Lyons, who was not yet president of the national convention. "I felt he had done many great works," she said.

Henry J. Lyons listens to the testimony of Bernice Edwards.
Edwards said she was too embarrassed to tell Lyons of a probation sentence she was serving. "I made a mistake. . . . It was not something I was proud of," she said.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer has allowed jurors to learn about that probation but has refused to allow any mention of the charge for which Edwards was convicted -- embezzlement.

At the time, Edwards said, her finances were in shambles. The youngest of 17 children, Edwards, now 42, was herself the mother of three children and was struggling to pay her bills.

"It was difficult," she said. "I found myself in a lot of debt and a lot of responsibilities."

Her minister, Donnie Sims, was the president of the Wisconsin state convention. After Lyons spoke at a local church in the months after Edwards first met him, Sims forgot to provide the St. Petersburg minister with a traditional gift, Edwards said.

So Sims dispatched Edwards to the airport to give him one. Edwards said it was at the airport that Lyons talked to her about helping him in his campaign for the convention presidency.

Did she consider any of this a romantic advance by Lyons? "No," she said. "I did not."

In September 1994, Lyons won the presidency. Soon, Edwards was working as the NBC's public relations director. Edwards, who said she had since told Lyons of her probation, testified that she was paid $40,000 a year.

Lyons, she said, was unbothered by her criminal past.

Edwards said she knew nothing of a deal between the convention and the Globe Accident and Life Insurance Co. when Globe officials and Lyons first met in St. Petersburg in June 1995.

Lyons, prosecutors say, promised to sell the company a list of names and addresses of the convention's supposed 8.5-million members for a direct mail campaign. Globe would pay $1-million to Lyons.

Prosecutors said Lyons' former administrative assistant, Bonita Henderson, created a bogus list using a $90 computer program containing a national phone directory. A subsequent Globe mailing failed miserably.

Edwards said the only list of Baptists she had in June 1995 contained the names of convention members in Florida and Georgia.

After the disastrous first mailing, Lyons assured Globe that Henderson had sabotaged the list. Edwards would help fix it, Globe executives testified earlier at trial.

Edwards said Lyons and Fred Canfield, the man who helped broker the deal between Globe and the convention, came to her for help.

"I was asked . . . to help them secure an African-American mailing list," said Edwards, who eventually bought one for $115,000 from a company that compiles such listings.

It was not a list of convention members, Edwards said.

Edwards testified for under an hour before court recessed. Her testimony continues today, when prosecutors and Lyons' attorneys are free to cross-examine her.

A subject likely to come up is the $700,000 Tierra Verde house Lyons and Edwards bought together. A fire set at the house by Lyons' wife, Deborah, in July 1997 touched off state and federal investigations against the pair.

Lyons and Edwards are accused of swindling millions of dollars from corporations eager to do business with convention members. But their lawyers describe failed business deals with those corporations as a matter for civil, not criminal court.

Now, Lyons won't get a chance to tell jurors just that. His attorneys rested their case Thursday.

The attorneys said they didn't want Lyons to testify because it might harm him at his April trial on 54 federal charges, including money laundering, bank fraud and extortion.

"This has been a very tough decision," said attorney Grady Irvin Jr. "Dr. Lyons has always wanted to have his story told."

Judge Schaeffer reminded Lyons that no one can make the decision for him about testifying.

Lyons nodded. "Your honor, it is my decision, and my children and my wife's decision not to testify."

 

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