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On TV, Lyons says: 'Let's get on with it'

The head of the National Baptist Convention USA says he disgraced his church and will resign today.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 16, 1999

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

In a prime time interview at the same luxury hotel he frequented with his alleged mistress and co-defendant, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons surrendered to Connie Chung what he fought for 20 months to preserve: his innocence and his position as leader of the nation's largest black church group.

On 20/20 Monday, Lyons spoke like a man resigned to his fate, telling Chung he will resign as president of the National Baptist Convention USA when he meets with his board today at his St. Petersburg church.

"We've spent almost two years trying to establish my innocence," said Lyons, recently convicted on state racketeering and grand theft charges. "All right, that did not happen. Let's get on with it. I accept my responsibilities. Let the convention and the church do what it needs to do."

On Wednesday morning, Lyons is expected to enter a guilty plea to several federal charges in hopes of ultimately getting a reduced sentence. Lyons faces 18 to 20 years in prison on 54 federal charges ranging from tax evasion to money laundering and fraud.

Under the terms of a possible plea agreement, U.S. Attorney Charles Wilson would agree to drop 49 of the counts and Lyons would plead guilty to the remaining five charges, including tax evasion and assorted frauds. Lyons also would agree to forfeit to the government virtually all of his assets, with the exception of the St. Petersburg home he shares with his wife, Deborah.

The exact sentence would be left up to U.S. District Judge Henry Lee Adams Jr., but Lyons' lawyers believe he would receive five to seven years under federal sentencing guidelines. They hope Lyons will serve out this sentence at the same time he is serving his state sentence, which likely will range between three and eight years in prison.

"I am deeply sorry for bringing the shame, bringing the negative image to the great National Baptist Convention," Lyons told Chung. "It hurts me. It's a pain. And I don't know that I will ever rid myself of this thing."

As Lyons edged closer to the inevitability of prison, the status of his two co-defendants in the federal case remained unclear.

Federal prosecutors have made plea bargain offers to Bernice Edwards and Brenda Harris, two former NBC employees and alleged mistresses accused of conspiring with Lyons to defraud corporations and banks.

Edwards' attorney in federal court, David T. Weisbrod, declined to comment Monday on any possible plea negotiations.

Nader Baydoun, an attorney for Harris, adopted a hard line to plea negotiations in an interview Monday.

"To what would my client plead? Fornication? Adultery? If they want a felony, they're not going to get it."

Would Harris plead guilty to a misdemeanor?

"It's got to fit," Baydoun said.

For months, the major networks have angled for interviews with Lyons. Producers from 60 Minutes II and Dateline NBC and the Today Show and Barbara Walters all took turns courting Lyons and his legal team.

But Chung, author of a scholarly paper titled, "The Business of Getting "The Get': Nailing an Exclusive Interview in Prime Time," was not to be denied.

A tenacious reporter who once staked out an ice rink to land an interview with Tonya Harding, Chung interviewed Lyons on Saturday morning at the Don CeSar Beach Resort & Spa, the upscale hotel where he frequently met with Edwards.

It was at the hotel, for example, that Lyons and Edwards negotiated the purchase of the infamous $700,000 waterfront home on Tierra Verde, scene of the fire that led to Lyons' downfall.

Chung's interview retraced what is by now a familiar story for residents of the Tampa Bay area: how Lyons used a phony and inflated list of NBC members to swindle millions from corporations. How he stole nearly $225,000 in donations to burned churches. How he spent hundreds of thousands on his girlfriends, and on obscenely expensive baubles like a $2,000 money clip.

"I believe in many ways I was like a kid at the fair, and just wanted to go out, touching and tasting everything, kind of running without a great deal of control in my life," Lyons said.

Chung asked Lyons if he had disgraced the black church. "Yes," Lyons replied. "And in many ways I feel that I have disgraced the black community and black America."

Of the burned church money, much of which disappeared into his Raymond James investment account, Lyons simply said: "That one error alone has cost me all of my credibility and what good name I ever dreamed of recovering. . . . I don't think I'll ever recover from that mistake."

Chung delved into the mystery of how Lyons' marriage of 26 years endures, despite acknowledged infidelities. Before a national audience, Lyons admitted to affairs with Brenda Harris and a former secretary, Bonita Henderson.

He continued to deny any romance with Edwards, though he readily conceded that tens of thousands he spent buying her jewelry looked "suspicious."

"As I'm looking at it now, it looks very bad."

Likewise, he said, with the $700,000 Tierra Verde home he and Edwards kept secret from Deborah Lyons.

"That what was one of my great errors in judgment: not telling (his wife). Once she found out about it, she burned it down and I don't blame her. (She) should have done something -- burn that down, or slap me down, or done something."

With a look of skepticism, Chung asked Deborah Lyons if she accepted her husband's explanations about Bernice Edwards and Tierra Verde and all the other women.

"Yes I do. Yes I do," she replied. "I have always trusted my husband. I have always believed. The only difference now is that I believe with open eyes."

In previous interviews and news conferences, Lyons has cast himself as the victim -- of greedy corporations, of white-owned newspapers, of his political opponents in the convention. About the only defense he mustered for Chung was that of executive inattention: "I delegated a lot of responsibilities that I personally should have taken. . . . A lot of things I let go, I should not have. I just didn't take as many areas of this job seriously."

His supporters persisted in raising the old defenses Monday.

"The media has morally lynched him ... indicating that he has not been a good husband, he's not been a good father, he's not been a good pastor," Deborah Lyons told Chung. "He has been an excellent husband and he's been an excellent father. . . . He's given a lot of quality time to his family as well as to his church."

In an ad taken out in Monday's St. Petersburg Times, the NBC's commission on justice and polity published "an open letter concerning Dr. Henry J. Lyons and the Racist State of Florida."

One excerpt: "The verdict on Dr. Lyons proves that when the life of a black person is put into the hands of six white people, this is what you end up with."

The Rev. J.J. Barfield, a once-fierce critic of Lyons who now serves as chairman of the commission on justice and polity, said he sought and received Lyons' approval of the ad copy. He charged the $2,100 cost to the National Baptist Convention.
-- Times staff writers Larry Dougherty and William Levesque contributed to this report.


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