Edwards expected to take plea deal
By LARRY DOUGHERTY and DAVID BARSTOW
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 25, 1999
TAMPA -- Bernice Edwards, the Milwaukee woman who shared luxury and then notoriety with the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, is expected to plead guilty to two counts of tax evasion in federal court this morning.
As part of a plea agreement, prosecutors will drop the other 23 charges pending against Edwards. What's more, federal authorities in Wisconsin will not pursue Edwards for any wrongdoing related to her 1993 embezzlement conviction there. She will have to pay the back taxes she owes on the $513,237 in income she failed to report in 1995 and 1996.
It remains to be seen what sort of a sentence might result from the plea agreement. Edwards is scheduled to plead guilty before U.S. District Judge Henry Lee Adams Jr. at 9:30 this morning.
Edwards, 42, had been scheduled to go to trial in federal court on April 7 -- only six weeks after a state court jury had cleared her of a racketeering charge. That same jury convicted Lyons of racketeering and grand theft.
It was the discovery of Edwards' and Lyons' names together on the deed of a Tierra Verde house that impelled Lyons' wife, Deborah Lyons, to set a fire two years ago and reveal the secret life of one of the nation's most powerful African-American ministers.
Lyons hired Edwards in 1994 to handle public relations for the convention. Enriched by corporate marketing deals, Lyons and Edwards purchased jewelry, luxury cars, the Tierra Verde house and a Lake Tahoe time-share.
Last week Lyons resigned his presidency of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. He avoided a second trial when he entered into a plea agreement in federal court. He is awaiting sentencing in both state and federal court.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment Wednesday on today's hearing for Edwards. Edwards' lawyer in her federal case, David T. Weisbrod of Tampa, could not be reached for comment.
Despite her acquittal on the state charges, there were indications Edwards was not looking forward to being tried in federal court.
Edwards told reporters after the state trial that she wanted to return home to Milwaukee and to the three children she dotes on -- a daughter, Jessica, in high school, and two younger boys, Jesse and Joshua.
Another factor was Edwards' testimony in the state trial, which seemed likely to haunt her in federal court. When she took the stand in state court, Edwards repeatedly admitted earning hundreds of thousands of dollars from corporations eager to do business with the NBC. Asked if she had ever declared any of this income to the IRS, Edwards said she couldn't recall.
For their part, federal authorities also seemed less than eager for a trial. In announcing the deal with Lyons last week, U.S. Attorney Charles Wilson said it was time for "the community to move on."
There was no word Wednesday on the status of the third defendant in the case -- Brenda Harris, the NBC conventions planner who faces eight counts. Her Nashville attorneys could not be reached for comment.
The charges to be dropped against Edwards include money laundering, bank fraud, extortion and using a false Social Security number. And she will not face additional charges stemming from her 1993 embezzlement conviction in Milwaukee. Edwards was convicted of stealing thousands of dollars from an alternative school she founded for at-risk teens.
Edwards' failure to report her lavish income from the NBC deals while on probation for the embezzlement conviction entailed "obvious federal violations," according to Pinellas-Pasco state attorney's investigator David Kurash.
The plea bargain with Edwards exhibits a bit of prosecutorial strategy. The absence of Lyons as a courtroom defendant would inevitably make the prosecutors' case a tougher sell to the jury, lawyers say.
"The general rule is it's much harder to try lesser figures who have been indicted when the major figure pleaded guilty," said John Fitzgibbons, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice in Tampa.
That's because defense attorneys can shift blame. Prosecutors can only introduce evidence that relates to the lesser defendants.
"It seems as though an absent person is on trial," Fitzgibbons said.