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Edwards enters 2 guilty pleas

In exchange for the pleas on tax evasion counts, federal prosecutors are dropping 23 other charges against her.

By LARRY DOUGHERTY, WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 26, 1999


TAMPA -- In a small voice tinged with some hesitation, Bernice V. Edwards pleaded guilty Thursday to two counts of tax evasion as part of a deal that could get her 15 to 30 months in federal prison.

The woman who bought a Tierra Verde house with former National Baptist Convention USA president Henry J. Lyons admitted she failed to report more than $500,000 of income from the convention in 1995 and 1996.

That money propelled Edwards on a streak of maximum shopping, a run she once described as "a little kid in a candy store." She bought a $1,250 Escada jacket, a 20-carat princess-cut diamond and a $135,000 Mercedes-Benz S 600V.

Now, according to the plea agreement, Edwards, 42, must forfeit the purchases she still has that can be traced to her unreported income: jewelry, the Tierra Verde house, a Lake Tahoe time share.

As Edwards walked away from the courthouse afterward, she ignored questions from reporters. Her quiet demeanor contrasted with Lyons' network interviews, and the impassioned statement he gave to reporters after he pleaded guilty in federal court last week.

In exchange for Edwards' two guilty pleas, federal prosecutors are dropping 23 other charges against her. In light of this, and the fact Edwards was acquitted in state court last month on a racketeering charge, Thursday's plea agreement was "a validation and a vindication for Ms. Edwards," her attorney, David T. Weisbrod of Tampa, told reporters.

The single toughest part of pleading guilty for Edwards involved her three children, Weisbrod added.

"It's very difficult for her to consider the possibility she would have to go to prison and be without her children and not be there to give them guidance," he said.

Edwards' attorney said his calculations suggested a possible sentence for Edwards ranging from 15 to 30 months in federal prison. But Edwards still hasn't seen the sentence that federal probation officials will recommend for her. They could grade her actions much more harshly than her attorney has.

U.S. District Judge Henry Lee Adams Jr. isn't bound by anyone's recommendation. He could impose a lighter sentence if he decides Edwards has cooperated with prosecutors.

In the courtroom Thursday, Edwards was poised. When she spoke, she spoke softly. She wore a simple black dress and gold hoop earrings.

The judge asked Edwards if she'd had enough time to discuss the charges with her attorney -- a routine question for a plea bargain. Her answer didn't come readily enough.

"There seems to be some level of hesitation," Judge Adams said. Had Edwards had enough time, he asked again.

"Yes I have, your honor," Edwards said.

"Do you need more time?" Adams said.

"No, I do not, your honor," Edwards said.

When the judge asked her how she pleaded to the two tax evasion counts, Edwards said, "Guilty" in a small voice.

Edwards' written agreement made these concessions: Edwards acknowledged failing to report at least $110,589 of income in 1995, and $402,648 in 1996. The Internal Revenue Service figures she owes taxes totaling $194,447. Edwards disagrees with that figure, and her attorney will try to negotiate a smaller amount, because it will affect her sentence.

Edwards was on probation in Milwaukee after a 1994 embezzlement conviction. She gave a 1995 income tax return to her probation officer but never filed it with the IRS, in part because it did not disclose her convention income. Nor did she disclose to the probation officer her many purchases in excess of $500, as she was required to do.

In court, Judge Adams asked, "Ms. Edwards, is that what happened?"

"That is what happened," Edwards replied.

As part of the deal, Edwards agreed to cooperate with federal investigators and testify when asked. Edwards' attorney said he didn't think she would be asked to testify against her co-defendant, NBC conventions planner Brenda D. Harris, or against Lyons at his sentencing. Federal prosecutors in Milwaukee have agreed not to pursue Edwards for violations related to her embezzlement conviction there.

Judge Adams didn't set a sentencing date for Edwards, but it is expected to occur in about 90 days.

Prosecutors said they were pleased with the outcome. No one should assume Edwards' sentence will be light just because 23 of her 25 charges were dropped, they said.

"We think this is an excellent resolution," Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen M. Kunz said.

Prosecutors declined to say Thursday if a plea deal was also in the works for Harris, the last defendant still facing a federal trial. Her Nashville attorneys could not be reached for comment Thursday.

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