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F. Lee Bailey joins Rev. Henry Lyons and his wife during a news conference Feb. 11.
(Times photo: Andrew Innerarity)
The team of lawyers that now includes O.J. Simpson's attorney expects a state investigation to conclude with a charge soon.
By DAVID BARSTOW and MONICA DAVEY
©St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 1998
Bailey, the feisty West Palm Beach orator who defended O.J. Simpson, Sam Sheppard and the Boston Strangler, stood in polished cowboy boots beside Lyons in a downtown hotel Wednesday afternoon for a news conference to announce his arrival on the Baptist leader's expanding team of lawyers.
"I'm very proud to be asked to represent Dr. Lyons," Bailey said. "I've spent some time with him, and no matter what may transpire in the future I'll simply say I think he's my kind of guy."
The team of attorneys for Lyons said Wednesday that they expect a state investigation into Lyons' handling of National Baptist Convention USA finances to conclude with a criminal charge sometime "soon."
Bailey declined to say what his services will cost, but as the defense team grows in number and reputation, Lyons' legal expenses are rising. Even as signs emerge that the convention is struggling financially, at least 10 lawyers have been employed by Lyons, his family or the convention. On Wednesday, Lyons' team also announced hiring a public relations executive to handle questions from reporters.
Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention and pastor of a St. Petersburg church, said he is pleased to have Bailey in his corner.
"It feels great, I mean really good," Lyons said. "I'm very happy with the team that we do have. I don't know how in the world I'm going pay for it. But we'll get out and do some more speaking and teaching and get it done."
Lyons has been the focus of state and federal criminal investigations since last year, when his wife set fire to a $700,000 waterfront house he owns on Tierra Verde with a former convention employee. The fire triggered revelations about secret bank accounts and large commissions on convention business deals.
In other developments Wednesday:
Lyons' attorneys said that if Lyons is charged with a crime, they will ask that he be allowed to turn himself in to authorities, with dignity, rather than be arrested at his home or in his car.
The attorneys plan to complain to federal authorities that Lyons' tax preparers improperly revealed information to reporters about Lyons' tax returns.
Lyons defended his handling of the American Baptist College, the convention's bible school in Nashville, Tenn. Lyons said he has given generously to the financially strapped school and suggested that his detractors look to the college's president with complaints about the school's run-down condition and unpaid bills. "I believe that in the history of America I'm the first person who's been judged by a school that he doesn't run," Lyons said.
Bailey said he joined Lyons' legal team after meeting recently with Grady Irvin, another Lyons' attorney.
On Saturday, Bailey was the luncheon speaker for the quarterly meeting of the Florida chapter of the National Bar Association in St. Pete Beach. Before about 60 African-American attorneys and judges, Bailey reminisced about some of his biggest cases.
Irvin, who said he has assembled the team of lawyers for Lyons, said he had talked to "a number" of lawyers, including Johnnie Cochran Jr., about the Baptist leader.
"I had an opportunity to sit down with (Bailey)," Irvin said. "And I saw what I liked. Over a cup of coffee, I knew this was someone who would believe in Henry Lyons, and believed in Henry Lyons and his family."
Denis de Vlaming, another local attorney for Lyons, will focus on the state side of the case. Anthony Battaglia will handle the federal side, Irvin said. It was unclear what Bailey's role will be or how they will work together.
On Wednesday, the lawyers pledged teamwork. They praised each other repeatedly.
"Don't start calling me to ask me who's leading this and who's leading that," Irvin told reporters. "We are led by two principles: that's faith and that's destiny."
Irvin went on: "You got four lawyers here who are concentrating on doing their jobs. If an information is ever filed, we're ready to stand by and fight all the way to the very, very end."
Bailey asked the public to put aside any preconceptions they have about Lyons based on media coverage.
"The editorials, for whatever reason, have hardly been balanced. They have called for the scalp of Dr. Lyons repeatedly and consistently," he said.
"There's got to be a level playing field."
He called on the media "to show some responsibility" in its coverage. By way of example, he referred to the "mess" surrounding his most famous trial.
"I hate to say it but I'm in a position of having to ask jurors whether they will vote against my client because they disagreed with the Simpson verdict, and you certainly have encouraged most of them to disagree with it."
Bailey had another, somewhat unusual request for the media. He said Irvin gave him a stack -- more than a foot tall -- of press clippings about Lyons. He asked reporters to provide him the stories on computer discs.
Bailey praised Lyons' wife, Deborah, who has steadfastly defended her husband since the fire last July and who stood beside him, along with their daughter, on Wednesday.
"One of the key ingredients in the Clinton defense-slash-offense is Hillary Clinton," Bailey said, referring to the Monica Lewinsky investigation. "She is sticking by her man in a way that the song never contemplated. And I think Dr. Lyons is most fortunate to have that (in Deborah Lyons.)"
Last week, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said Lyons will be treated like anyone else if he is arrested. On Wednesday, de Vlaming said he expects no special treatment for his client, but pointed out that allegations against Lyons involve no violence and that Lyons has not fled since the investigation began months ago.
"Therefore we are hopeful that the Sheriff's Department will extend to us, as they have other clients of mine similarly situated, the courtesy of" telling them when a warrant is being issued.
"We can turn this man in in a dignified and professional manner," de Vlaming said. "We feel that there is no reason whatsoever for this man to be taken out of his home or stopped in his automobile on the street by law enforcement."
Pinellas sheriff's officials could not be reached for comment.
Battaglia said a federal grand jury, meeting in Tampa since last year, may complete its work before June, perhaps sooner. "We do not get a timetable. They don't call us," he said, adding that he knows less about it than the reporters who are covering the grand jury's weekly meetings.
Battaglia did, however, criticize some recent coverage of the grand jury. Last week, two tax preparers called before the grand jury later discussed their testimony with reporters and divulged details of the Lyonses' 1995 and 1996 tax returns.
Battaglia agreed that most grand jury witnesses are allowed by law to publicly discuss their testimony. "But certainly tax preparers do not have that privilege. They willfully and knowingly went out and talked to the press about matters which were confidential in all respects. It happens to be a federal offense," he said.
"The press should have backed off as soon as they started talking about these confidential matters," he said, adding that he has asked the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa to look into this "deplorable event."
- Times staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this report.