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Lyons admits list of wrongs
Rev. Henry Lyons faces the press after entering his guilty plea to federal charges. [Times photo: Dirk Shadd]

In exchange for his guilty plea, federal prosecutors drop 49 of the 54 counts against him and won't require him to testify against co-defendants.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 18, 1999

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

More of today's Times coverage

What he'll have to give up
Text of his prepared statement

TAMPA -- Entrusting his fate to God instead of another jury, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons pleaded guilty Wednesday in federal court to five counts of fraud and tax evasion.

In return, the 49 other federal counts pending against Lyons will be dismissed. The Baptist leader won't be required to testify against co-defendants Bernice V. Edwards and Brenda D. Harris, who are scheduled to go on trial next month. But a prison term looms.

Afterward, Lyons told reporters: "The state and federal government will take my body and lock it up, but my soul and mind will never be shackled and will always serve God."

In tendering his plea a day after resigning as president of the National Baptist Convention USA, Lyons had to admit to detailed accounts of wrongdoing after months of professing his innocence.

He acknowledged committing bank fraud, submitting forged documents to the federal government and failing to report $1.3-million in income from his deals with corporations eager to obtain church business.

U.S. Attorney Charles Wilson talks with media after the Lyons hearing. [Times photo:
Jim Stem]

Lyons, 57, agreed to forfeit ill-gotten cash, cars, jewelry and property -- including the Tierra Verde house his wife, Deborah Lyons, set on fire two years ago after discovering Edwards' name on the deed, an act that began the scrutiny of Lyons' finances.

Though inside the courtroom Lyons was subdued and answered questions in a soft voice, outside, surrounded by loyalists, he spoke with more confidence and a hint of defiance. He said he is "truly repentant," and he asked the government to end "this persecution" by dismissing its case against Edwards and Harris. Then Lyons walked away from the courthouse, flanked by supporters singing the hymn Never Alone.

The plea agreement doesn't address several issues crucial to Lyons' fate, including whether Lyons, who was convicted last month in state court of racketeering and grand theft, would serve his federal sentence in federal or state prison. Placement in a less restrictive federal facility is up to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

Nor did the plea agreement include the length of the federal prison sentence he will receive from U.S. District Judge Henry Lee Adams Jr. on June 18. Lyons' attorney, Jeff Brown, estimated Lyons will face between 70 and 87 months for his federal sentence.

The job of calculating a potential sentence now falls to federal probation officials. According to the plea agreement, federal prosecutors reserved the right to provide probation officials with information on all the charges Lyons faced. That includes the ones he didn't plead guilty to, such as the charges involving money diverted from the Anti-Defamation League for burned black churches.

That information can be "a real wild card," said George Tragos, a former federal prosecutor now in private defense practice in Clearwater. "I hope Lyons understands the risks."

The plea agreement said nothing about whether Lyons' federal sentence would run concurrently with the state sentence that Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer will hand down in two weeks.

In a news conference after the hearing, U.S. Attorney Charles Wilson said "Rev. Lyons did the right thing" by pleading guilty. "It's time for the United States and the community to move on."

Lyons and his wife, Deborah, outside the federal courthouse. [Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
Wilson said his office had not been too lenient in agreeing to dismiss 49 of the 54 charges Lyons had faced.

"He's pleading to two 30-year felonies, and three five-year felonies," Wilson said. The agreement was "fair, reasonable, in the best interests of the United States and in the best interests of Rev. Lyons."

"I don't characterize it as too generous," Wilson said. "I characterize it as fair."

Wilson said his office did not seek Lyons' testimony against Edwards and Harris, two convention employees with whom Lyons had been linked romantically, because it was deemed unnecessary. Although many plea agreements require defendants to testify against co-conspirators, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Kunz said it's not office practice to seek testimony from the leader of a criminal enterprise against subordinates.

Lyons pleaded guilty to making a false statement to a financial institution, bank fraud, making a false statement to a federal agency and two counts of tax evasion, for his income in 1995 and 1996.

In the courtroom Wednesday morning, Lyons looked humble and forthright as he stood at the lectern, dressed in a dark suit and ever so slightly stooped. He said he hadn't slept Tuesday night because of a bad sinus condition.

In a low voice, Judge Adams asked whether Lyons understood the terms under which he was accepting responsibility for his crimes.

"Yes, sir, I accept responsibility," Lyons replied, his voice hoarse. ". . . I plead guilty, sir."

Looking on was Wilson, who for the first time in his career as U.S. attorney had entered a Tampa courtroom to sit at the prosecution table.

It was an extraordinary moment as Adams, Lyons and Wilson -- three of the most powerful African-American men in the Tampa Bay area -- came together to resolve the fate of one of them.

Then the case prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Lawson, stepped to the lectern to read Lyons' five-page factual stipulation to the crimes he was admitting.

A single line Lawson read squelched weeks of controversy from Lyons' state trial. In Pinellas County, a key contention of Lyons' defense to the racketeering charges concerned Lyons' ability to sell corporations a list of 8.5-million black Baptists.

In state court, Lyons' attorneys had maintained the estimate was accurate, even if the actual list had been haphazardly cobbled together from telephone listings.

But on Wednesday, Lawson read aloud this line: "The defendant and several of his agents falsely represented to the bank that the NBC had 8-million to 9-million members."

After the hearing concluded, Lyons and his attorney approached Wilson. Lyons shook Wilson's hand, and said, "I'm really sorry, and I appreciate everything you've done."

After Lyons addressed reporters, he and his attorney walked a few steps to the U.S. Probation Office. There they spent more than an hour with officials who will make the recommendation concerning his federal sentence.

The question of where Lyons will serve his prison sentences involves "a lot of nuances," said Gary Trombley, a former federal prosecutor now in private defense practice in Tampa.

Lyons faces three to eight years in prison for his conviction in state court. Should Judge Adams make Lyons' federal sentence concurrent with his state one, the most the judge may do is recommend Lyons serve it at a federal prison, such as the minimum security one at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle.

"It's the Bureau of Prisons' call," Trombley said.

Concurrent sentences of this type have been served in both state and federal prisons, said Helen Butler, a spokeswoman for the federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington, D.C.

"It depends on the individual, and it depends on how aggressively the state goes after the assignment," Butler said.

It's important which government goes first, Trombley added. Should Judge Schaeffer immediately remand Lyons into state custody at his sentencing March 31, as state prosecutors want her to do, the likelihood would increase that Lyons would serve out his federal time in state prison as well.


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