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Lyons' ex-mistress given probation

Brenda Harris also must complete 75 hours of community service and pay a fine for failing to report the commission of a crime.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 27, 1999


TAMPA -- In the hours after the scandal broke in July 1997, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons called his mistress with reassuring words that she would be safe from discovery.

Lyons' wife, Deborah, had just been charged with setting fire to a $700,000 Tierra Verde home Lyons bought with aide Bernice Edwards, and suddenly the St. Petersburg minister's life was under scrutiny.

"He said it wouldn't affect me," Brenda Harris recalled. "He said it wouldn't have anything to do with me."

On Monday, a scandal that engulfed Lyons and his National Baptist Convention USA came full circle for Harris, a convention meeting planner, when a federal judge sentenced her to 18 months of probation for failing to report the commission of a crime.

U.S. District Judge Henry Lee Adams Jr., who could have sentenced Harris to up to six months in prison, also ordered Harris to complete 75 hours of community service and pay a $3,000 fine.

Afterward, the quiet, shy Harris, who once dreaded her discovery as the mistress to the Baptist president, stood outside the federal courthouse while cameras from a dozen newspapers and television stations pressed in on her.

Harris, 48, spoke of Lyons and a scandal that, despite Lyons' early assurances, forever altered her life.

"I lost everything," Harris said. "I lost my reputation. I lost all my financial resources. I lost my house. I lost my business, my career. But more than anything, I have lost so many people who have loved and trusted me and believed in me."

Harris pleaded guilty in April to a charge called misprision of a felony, which means Harris failed to tell law enforcement about the commission of a felony.

Specifically, prosecutors said Harris failed to disclose to two banks that her down payment for a $340,000 home just outside Nashville, Tenn., came from a secret fund controlled by Lyons. She instead told the banks the down payment came from her earnings.

Harris, who was forced to forfeit the home to the government as a condition of her guilty plea, told Adams she was remorseful for her misdeeds. When the scandal first broke, she said she simply was sorry she had been caught. But through time, that changed.

"I did make a mistake," Harris admitted. "And I made a serious one."

Two years of scandal and revelation are now drawing to a close as the criminal cases against Lyons and his two former aides are resolved.

Defendant by defendant, prosecutions that began after the fire in Tierra Verde set by a jealous wife are ending in the federal courthouse.

Lyons, 57, was convicted by a Pinellas County jury in February of racketeering and grand theft and is now serving a 5 1/2-year sentence in a prison near Ocala, where he is a clerk in a prison library.

Prosecutors accused him of using the Baptist convention's good name to swindle millions of dollars from corporations trying to tap into its supposed 8.5-million members. Lyons was also accused of stealing most of the $244,000 given to him by the Anti-Defamation League to rebuild burned black churches.

In June, Adams sentenced Lyons to four years and three months in prison for his guilty plea in federal court to separate fraud and tax evasion charges. Since the sentence is concurrent to his state term, it didn't add a day to the total time he is to serve.

That sentence is being appealed by the federal government.

Edwards was acquitted of racketeering by the same state jury that convicted Lyons in state court. But in March, she pleaded guilty to tax evasion charges. When she is sentenced by Adams in October, Edwards faces between 15 and 30 months in prison.

Harris said she regretted her affair with the married minister and planned to counsel other women who find themselves in similar situations.

* * *

Today, Harris is still a meeting planner for the convention at its Nashville headquarters. She came to court flanked by about a dozen family members and friends, including her parents, and told the court she was ready to accept her punishment.

Her father, William Harris, 72, told Adams that he instilled a work ethic in his children. He said his daughter was still a hard worker worthy of the court's leniency.

"She admits she made a mistake," he said. "She regrets those mistakes. Her father regrets the mistakes. ... I think if you give her a chance she will bring her life around." The daughter put a hand to her father's back as he choked back tears.

Harris, who before her plea faced eight charges that included bank fraud, money laundering and conspiracy, faced up to four years in prison if convicted at trial.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Lawson said the government felt no need to take Harris to trial after Lyons and Edwards, the main targets of investigation, had already pleaded guilty to charges.

"Why would we have wasted the community's time and money trying her when we already had the major players?" Lawson said.

Harris said she regretted her affair with the married minister. She said she planned to counsel other women who find themselves in similar situations.

Speaking of the public humiliation of the last two years, Harris looked more confident and self assured than in previous public appearances, smiling frequently.

"This has been a trying experience," said Harris, who promised the judge he would never see her in court again. "It's a life-changing experience."

One last time, the camera crews followed her every step and word, the newspaper photographers followed her out of the courthouse, reporters asked the same familiar questions of her.

"I'm so glad," Harris said, "that this is over."

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