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Brenda Harris rejects plea deal

The trial of Harris, the Rev. Henry Lyons' former paramour, begins next week. She faces eight federal charges.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 9, 1999

TAMPA -- The last remaining defendant in the federal indictment against the Rev. Henry J. Lyons has rejected a plea bargain and will go to trial next week, one of her attorneys said Thursday.

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

Brenda D. Harris could not yield to prosecutors' insistence that she plead guilty to a single count because "she could not truthfully admit to any of those charges," the attorney, Nader Baydoun of Nashville, said Thursday.

The eight charges against Harris were dwarfed by the 54 counts against Lyons, the former president of the National Baptist Convention USA, and the 25 counts against his former aide, Bernice V. Edwards. Lyons and Edwards were accused of bilking millions from corporations that wanted to do business with the powerful black church group.

Noting that "the government has already made a deal with the central figure in the case," Baydoun said that the continuing prosecution of Harris is "highly unfortunate." Harris, an NBC official, was romantically involved with Lyons. "I would guess Ms. Harris received less money and gifts than some of the other people who have not been charged," Baydoun said. And Lyons, who resigned the NBC presidency last month and entered state prison last week, has said through his attorney that Harris "didn't know where the money came from," Baydoun said.

The U.S. Attorney's Office gave no hint of wavering Thursday in the face of the attorney's comments.

"The government is ready to go to trial as well," said a spokesman, Executive Assistant Monte Richardson.

Richardson declined other comment about Harris' case, other than to say "the facts and circumstances regarding her participation will be brought out at trial."

Baydoun's comments broke a three-week silence for the Harris camp, during which Lyons and Edwards, the convention's former public relations director, finalized their plea agreements rather than go to trial in federal court.

The indictment assigns Harris the fewest charges -- a total of eight counts of conspiracy, money laundering, bank fraud and making false statements to a bank.

Harris, a 48-year-old businesswoman once nicknamed "Miss Priss," was hired by Lyons in 1995 to coordinate the frequent meetings of the NBC.

Prosecutors say Lyons supplied nearly all of the $102,000 cash down payment Harris provided for a $340,000 house in Nashville. Last September, Lyons publicly admitted a two-year affair with Harris.

Harris' trial before U.S. District Judge Henry Lee Adams Jr. is expected to take two weeks. Harris' attorney declined to say whether she will testify or who might testify on her behalf.

Lyons' attorney, Jeff Brown, said this week he would fight any witness subpoena issued to Lyons to prevent damage to any appeal by Lyons.

Harris was not charged in the state case against Lyons and Edwards. Lyons, 57, was convicted of racketeering and grand theft and is now at a state Department of Corrections prison in Orlando, a processing center where he is expected to spend several weeks before being moved to a permanent prison to serve out his 51/2-year sentence.

Edwards was acquitted of state charges, and neither she nor Lyons has been sentenced on federal charges.

In a corrections mug shot, taken when he arrived at the prison April 1, Lyons appears in standard prison blues and a white T-shirt. As they do with all inmates, corrections employees shaved clean Lyons' head and mustache.

Corrections rules prohibit inmates from having any hair behind the ears or touching the collar, a precaution to prevent inmates from hiding contraband or easily changing their appearance, an escape precaution.

-- Times staff writer William R. Levesque contributed to this report.

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