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Lyons' federal sentence won't add to jail time

Rev. Henry J. Lyons gets a punishment that will run concurrently with his state prison term.

By LARRY DOUGHERTY and WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 19, 1999


TAMPA -- The Rev. Henry J. Lyons was given a federal prison sentence Friday that isn't expected to add a day to the time he will spend behind bars.

The federal sentence of four years and three months for fraud and tax evasion will run concurrently with the 51/2-year state sentence Lyons already is serving for crimes he committed as the president of the National Baptist Convention USA.

Federal prosecutors had sought a longer sentence, one in excess of seven years.

Lyons' relief at the outcome was tempered by the anguish he expressed to U.S. District Judge Henry Lee Adams Jr. about living in prison.

"I question myself now, day in and day out, as I lay on my bunk every night. How did I come to be here?" Lyons said. "What did I do that brought me to this? What took me off the path that I've traveled for so many years, that I loved so much? What happened to Henry Lyons?"

The judge also ordered Lyons to pay $5.2-million in restitution to the Globe Accident and Life Insurance Co., the Loewen Group and other corporations that entered into deals with Lyons. In March, Lyons admitted defrauding mortgage lenders and corporate partners and failing to report the income from his corporate deals.

Some of those debts will be repaid with property and real estate Lyons previously agreed to forfeit to the government. Lyons, who once owned a $700,000 Tierra Verde house, a Land Rover, and a timeshare in Lake Tahoe, now owns only the St. Petersburg house occupied by his wife, Deborah.

Prosecutors said they expect a quick sale of the Tierra Verde house, which Lyons owned with co-defendant Bernice Edwards. The discovery of the house by Lyons' wife began his downfall in July 1997.

Lyons, 57, looked slight and dispirited in court Friday, his face and body thinner than when he entered his guilty pleas in March. Relatives had to search for an older and smaller version of his standard dark suit, and still it hung large on him. No longer did a gold NBC pin shine from his left lapel.

The hair on his head had grown back from his prison shave, although his mustache is no more. His transformation from the dapper and confident religious leader into humble prisoner seemed to surprise him still.

"This suit, that I appreciate you allowing me to wear today in this courtroom, I no longer wear this," Lyons said as he began to cry. "I wear prison blue. I no longer have to answer to the name my father gave me. I answer to a number."

It was hard to imagine that less than two years earlier Lyons had been at the apex of his world, his endorsement sought by the president of the United States and corporations. Then his wife, in a jealous rage, set a fire at the Tierra Verde house, and Lyons' secret life emerged.

Lyons and two women with whom he was romantically linked, Edwards and Brenda Harris, were prosecuted by federal authorities for participating in Lyons' fraudulent arrangements. Both women are awaiting sentencing. Edwards also was prosecuted in state court, but was acquitted.

On Friday morning, federal prosecutors argued for a sentence of seven years and three months, and a fine.

Federal prosecutor Ken Lawson said Lyons had gotten a break once, in 1991, when the federal government resolved a complaint of bank fraud against Lyons without filing charges. Lyons didn't deserve another one, Lawson said.

"He forgot where he came from," said Lawson, who grew up in the same black neighborhood in Gainesville where Lyons did. "He forgot the small people. He forgot that you don't use poor black people to line your pockets."

Judge Adams didn't agree. Lyons could not be given an enhanced penalty as a betrayer of trust, the judge ruled, if the NBC didn't consider itself to have been betrayed by him.

The final recommended range for Lyons' imprisonment was 51 to 63 months. The government asked for the maximum. But the judge imposed the minimum of 51 months without further comment. Five years of probation will follow.

The most crucial element of Lyons' sentence -- whether it would run concurrently with, or consecutive to, his state sentence -- was hardly discussed. Federal prosecutors acknowledged that the law requires sentences for related conduct to run concurrently.

Lyons will receive the federal prison system's standard 15 percent sentence reduction for good behavior, regardless of his actual behavior in state prison, a federal Bureau of Prisons spokesman said Friday.

Combined with credit for time served, Lyons' final federal sentence should be less than three years and five months. That falls well short of the expected duration of Lyons' state sentence, which could end up being 41/2 years with good behavior. He might be released as soon as the fall of 2003.

"Obviously we're a little disappointed," U.S. Attorney Charles Wilson told reporters. Wilson said his office might appeal.

Lyons' attorney, Jeff Brown, said Lyons had prepared for a sentence of five years and 10 months.

"It's been a great day," Brown said. "Dr. Lyons is ecstatic. Now he knows the end is in sight."

Afterward, Deborah Lyons said: "That's a wonderful sentence. We've been in prayer. And that was the answer to our prayers. It really was. . . . We look forward with great anticipation to being together again."

Deborah Lyons is still not on her husband's visitor list at state prison. Her earlier plea of guilty for setting fire to the Tierra Verde house makes her a convicted felon, so she must make a special application for visitation. She had not seen her husband since he was sentenced in state court March 31.

After the sentencing Friday, the courtroom was cleared and Lyons was allowed to visit briefly with his daughters.

Lyons is an inmate at the Lowell Correctional Institution, about 10 miles north of Ocala. He sleeps in a barracks-like dormitory with 70 other inmates whose crimes include first-degree murder, child abuse and car theft. He works eight hours a day, without pay, as a clerk in a prison library.

"He has not asked for any special treatment," said Greg Riska, the prison's assistant warden for operation. "He's keeping a real low profile."

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