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'I was like a little kid in a candy store'

Bernice Edwards says that she made - and spent - a lot of money but did not steal any of it.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 1999



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


LARGO -- As hundreds of thousands of dollars began to flow into Bernice Edwards' hands, the penniless probationer and mother of three finally felt proud to be providing for herself.

From 1994 to 1997, her spending was astounding: jewelry, luxury homes, automobiles, lavish clothing.

"I bought these things because I worked hard to earn the money," Edwards testified Friday in her state racketeering trial. "It was a chance to buy things I had always wanted. . . . I was like a little kid in a candy store."

Although much of that time she was on probation for a federal embezzlement conviction, Edwards did not report the new-found earnings to her Milwaukee probation officer as required.

"I didn't report it because I didn't want it to stop," she said. "I felt good about it. I didn't want anyone to halt it."

Edwards, 42, who for 18 months never uttered a public word about the case against her, testified for a second day about her work for the National Baptist Convention USA and its president, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons.

Together, prosecutors say, the two used the convention's good name to swindle more than $4-million from corporations eager to do business with the convention's supposed 8.5-million members. Now the pair is being tried on state racketeering charges.

Edwards said she did not steal from corporations doing business with the convention. She said she earned the money she made, and she didn't flinch from admitting her profit.

She cleared at least $350,000 on a convention deal with a life insurance company wanting to market its product to convention Baptists, she acknowledged.

"That's a pretty good payday for you, isn't it?" asked her lawyer, Paul Sisco.

"Absolutely," she said confidently.

Edwards' poise during questioning appeared to fade during an often blistering cross-examination by Assistant State Attorney Bill Loughery. Her voice dropped to a whisper as Loughery asked her about inconsistencies in her testimony. Loughery told Edwards she appeared to have a good memory, easily remembering dates and events when asked by her own attorney. "I agree," she said.

"Then can you tell the jury why you can't remember your Social Security number," Loughery said.

He then paraded before jurors a large chart listing the numerous Social Security numbers Edwards has used in various documents.

"It could have been failed memory," Edwards said, noting she is bad with numbers. Loughery said it was more than a bad memory. Instead, he said, the false numbers hid from probation officials her lavish spending.

Didn't she have an affair with Lyons, Loughery asked? Never, Edwards said.

What of a trip to New York City in March 1994 and the night at the Drake Hotel? Business trip, Edwards said. She and Lyons stayed in adjoining rooms.

Records show Edwards told her probation officer in Milwaukee she was staying in Room 1405. Loughery displayed to the jury a hotel receipt signed by Lyons. At the bottom of the receipt his room is listed: 1405.

"It was a professional relationship only," she said. "And friends."

What of the jeweler who delivered a diamond ring to Edwards at her room at the Don CeSar Beach Resort & Spa? The jeweler who testified that Edwards wouldn't let her and her husband in the room because Lyons was sleeping?

Edwards admitted she did say that to the jeweler. "I said that to get rid of them," she said. "I didn't want them in my room."

What of the trips with Lyons to Hawaii, where the NBC doesn't have a single church? Or the trip to the Bahamas or to the Nevada resort town of Lake Tahoe? All business trips, she said.

What work did she do with Lyons in Nassau? "I don't recall the specifics," Edwards said. "When I wasn't working, I was having fun."

Edwards testified about the Globe Accident and Life Insurance Co., which prosecutors say paid Lyons for a list of the convention's supposed 8.5-million members. Lyons promised such a list, they said, when it didn't exist.

Edwards said that in late 1995 she bought for $115,000 a list of African-American names and addresses from a company that compiles such lists.

She provided it to Globe, which she said knew what she was providing was not an actual list of NBC members.

Edwards said she knew at the time that a list of all NBC members did not exist. Then Loughery displayed to jurors a contract with Globe, signed by Lyons, that promised his convention $600,000 for a list of "convention members."

"So Globe gave you $600,000 for something that did not exist?" Loughery asked.

"Absolutely," she said.

Another $1-million paid to Lyons and Edwards in early 1996 by the Loewen Group, the world's second-largest funeral company, was payment for helping the company deal with negative publicity from a Mississippi verdict that cost the company $175-million.

Loewen executives say Lyons and Edwards told them they spent $1-million in Mississippi but refused to provide the company documentation. When they balked at paying, they said, Lyons threatened to hold a news conference in Washington, D.C., to denounce them. Loewen paid.

When black funeral directors around the nation denounced a partnership between Lyons and Loewen to sell plots to convention members, Lyons and Edwards asked the company to finance a program to bolster Lyons' image.

Edwards admitted she faxed a letter to a Loewen representative saying Lyons had already sent mailings to half the convention's 8.5-million members at a cost of $1.2-million. The letter asked Loewen to foot the bill.

After Loewen complained, Edwards said, "I stopped the mailing."

"What mailing?" Loughery asked. Edwards already had admitted a mailing list of members did not exist.

Lyons did start a mailing to some members, Edwards said, though she could not answer what list he could have used.

Records show Edwards did not pay taxes on the hundreds of thousands of dollars she made through her convention work. When asked by Loughery if she paid her taxes, Edwards, whose testimony continues Monday, said, "I'm not sure."

 

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