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GMAC sues Lyons, in prison, for car loan

Earlier this month the company filed a small claims lawsuit against the Rev. Lyons for the balance of his note.

By JOUNICE L. NEALY

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 27, 1999


A week and a half before the Rev. Henry J. Lyons was sentenced to 51/2 years in state prison, he refinanced the $17,000 balance owed on his green Oldsmobile 98 He promised to pay General Motors Acceptance Corp. $480 a month for the next 31/2 years.

By April 19, when the first payment was due, Lyons was in a cell and his attorneys said he was penniless.

When he made no payments, GMAC repossessed the four-door car and sent a letter to Lyons' St. Petersburg home demanding full payment.

When Lyons did not respond, the company sold the car in July at a private sale and calculated that he still owed $4,893.15.

Earlier this month, GMAC, which later figured out that Lyons was living in the men's unit of the Lowell Correctional Institution near Ocala, filed a small claims lawsuit against the inmate. Lyons works as a clerk in the prison library but is not paid.

"I don't think that our consultants would knowingly extend something, understanding that someone is going to be incarcerated," said James Farmer, vice president of communications for Detroit-based GMAC, on Thursday. "There's no way we would have known. There's nothing in our forms that say, "Are you about to go to prison?' "

Lyons, the former head of the National Baptist Convention USA, was convicted in February of racketeering and grand theft. He also was convicted in federal court of fraud and tax evasion.

According to court records, Lyons bought the new car in 1996 from an Oldsmobile dealer in Collierville, Tenn., which is near Nashville. The National Baptist Convention has its headquarters in Nashville.

Brenda Harris, the convention's meeting planner and Lyons' ex-mistress, is listed in Tennessee records as co-owner of the car; however, her name does not appear on any of the GMAC financing contracts.

An attorney for Harris said that she hadn't used the car for more than a year and it was given to her by convention officials to use for business, said Nader Baydoun.

Harris, who is on probation for failing to report the commission of a crime, did not return telephone messages.

There is no attorney listed in court records as representing Lyons in this lawsuit.

Soon after Lyons bought the car, he agreed to urge Baptists to patronize products and services endorsed by a Memphis developer. That developer, John B. Lowery, had put together a buying club and was wooing influential black church leaders. Lowery was business partners with a man named Charlie Riggan, who owned the Oldsmobile dealership where Lyons purchased the car in February 1996.

Lyons agreed to finance the car for 35 months at $480 a month and make a final payment of $17,146 in February 1999.

On March 19, Lyons refinanced that final payment but never paid another dime. GMAC took the car to a storage lot near Orlando and told Lyons he could come get it if he paid in full, "plus expenses."

"The longer you wait, the more you may have to pay to get your vehicle back," the May 25 letter said.


-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report. Information from the New York Times also was used.

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