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  • Secretary's writing linked to signature

    By MONICA DAVEY and DAVID BARSTOW

    ©St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 1998


    Handwriting samples indicate that a secretary for the Rev. Henry J. Lyons falsified a signature on a letter submitted to win financing for a housing project sponsored by Lyons, two handwriting experts say.

    The experts, hired by the St. Petersburg Times, found numerous similarities between the handwriting of secretary Berlena T. Hudson and the forged signature. They concluded that sh
    A closer look at the signatures in question. Times graphic
    e "probably" signed the letter.

    Hudson, 54, was summoned with her attorney Thursday morning to the Tampa offices of U.S. Attorney Charles Wilson and the FBI, where she was asked to provide examples of her writing.

    Hudson declined to comment to reporters after spending more than an hour in the offices. Her attorney, Jay A. Hebert, also declined to discuss the meetings, saying only: "I am pleased to say that Mrs. Hudson will not be in front of the grand jury."

    The forged signature is one focus of a federal grand jury investigating Lyons' activities since he was elected president of the National Baptist Convention USA in 1994.

    On Thursday, the Rev. Roscoe D. Cooper Jr., general secretary of the convention, delivered nine boxes of convention financial records and other documents to the grand jury, which has been meeting weekly since late last year.

    It was Cooper's name that was forged on a Feb. 11, 1997, letter in which the convention pledged a $750,000 line of credit toward Lyons' proposed Bethel Village development, an 84-bed assisted living facility for elderly residents.

    The letter was submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to obtain government insurance for the project's financing.

    An investigator from HUD has been assigned to the federal probe of Lyons. Under federal law, knowingly giving a document with false signatures to a federal agency is a crime, punishable by five years in prison.

    Some key questions face federal prosecutors: Who forged Cooper's name on the Bethel Village letter? Did Lyons play a role in the forgery?

    An examination of the Bethel Village deal, including interviews with several key players, shows that the forged letter likely originated from Lyons' offices at Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church.

    Lyons was the primary force behind the project and personally lobbied top city and HUD officials for support. A consultant who helped provide the letter to HUD said it came from Lyons' church. The letter was on Lyons' letterhead, typed by one of his secretaries and, according to two handwriting experts, signed by Hudson, another secretary at the church.

    The Times paid the experts their standard fee -- between $300 and $400 -- to compare the Cooper forgery to more than a dozen samples of Hudson's writing. The samples came from public documents, including property records and her marriage license. Neither handwriting expert was told in advance of the other's conclusions.

    Willa W. Smith, a certified document examiner from Tampa with 23 years experience, found similarities between the Cooper forgery and Hudson's writing as to "movement, slant, end strokes, letters and letter combinations."

    "Therefore in my opinion," Smith wrote, "they were probably written by the same hand as her known signatures."

    Joan D. Christo, a forensic document examiner from Clearwater with 22 years experience, concluded that Hudson's writing had similarities to the Cooper forgery in "slant, spacing and letter formation."

    "It is my professional opinion that it is probable that the signature in question was written by the writer of the Berlena T. Hudson standards," she wrote.

    The experts said they could not be 100 percent sure Hudson signed Cooper's name without more handwriting samples and without the original of the Cooper letter.

    When first contacted by the Times last month, Hudson denied signing Cooper's name. "That is not my handwriting at all," she said, when shown the Cooper signature.

    Hudson, a St. Petersburg resident and licensed notary public, has worked for Lyons for many years. She is one of at least three secretaries who greet visitors to his church. Asked if Lyons has ever directed her to sign a name other than her own, Hudson replied: "I sign my name."

    Last week, after she was informed of the findings by both handwriting experts, Hudson declined through her attorney to comment on whether she signed Cooper's name.

    "She denies wrongdoing on her part," Hebert said.

    Lyons has declined to answer questions about this and other forged signatures that have surfaced in some of his financial dealings. One of his attorneys, Grady Irvin, said Thursday: "I'm not aware of Dr. Lyons requesting anyone to sign any document with a signature that was not their own. I'm not aware of it. I've never posed that question to him, and at this time I do not see any reason to pose it."

    Irvin, though, said that forgery charges might not be "applicable" given the "past practices" of the convention.

    "It may turn out that there was no harm intended and no harm done," he said.

    In many large organizations, he said, assistants routinely sign letters for busy executives. "Secretaries do it for lawyers every day," Irvin said. "People sign the governor's signature all the time."

    Cooper, though, has told the Times he has never authorized anyone to sign his name. The second-ranking official in the convention, Cooper also said he knew nothing about the Bethel Village project, nor did he know of any discussion within the convention to lend financial support to the deal.

    The Bethel Village letter is at least the fourth time Roscoe Cooper's signature has been falsified on a convention document.

    City officials, who had a $300,000 investment in the Bethel Village project, first raised questions about the letter last fall after reading news accounts about three previous Cooper forgeries. They asked Lyons' representatives for proof that Cooper's signature was real. The assurances never came. "From that point, the whole thing started coming unglued," said Tom de Yampert, the city's housing coordinator.

    Lyons resigned from the project's board and withdrew the letter from HUD, but it was too late. The city has pulled its financial support.

    Questions about the forgery continue.

    Three people were the incorporators and initial directors of the project: Ashby Hobson, a leader at Lyons' church; Martin Bakke, a paid consultant from Clearwater; and Lyons. During the organizational meeting for Bethel Adult Care on Dec. 4, 1996, Lyons was elected president of the non-profit corporation formed to build Bethel Village.

    The three leaders each have denied signing Roscoe Cooper's name on the letter.

    "I have no idea" who signed it, Hobson has told the Times.

    Said Bakke: "I don't have a clue. I don't want to know."

    Though Lyons has denied signing the letter, his links to it are many.

    Though the letter is supposed to be from Cooper, it was written on Lyons' personal letterhead:"National Baptist Convention USA Inc.; Office of the President; Dr. Henry J. Lyons."

    Initials at the bottom of the letter -- "RDC:ddb" -- indicate that Cooper dictated it to Deborah Blake, another secretary at Lyons' St. Petersburg church. Did Blake recall who signed the letter? "I sure don't," she told the Times. Asked whether it would have been unusual for Cooper, who lives in Richmond, Va., to dictate a letter to Blake, Blake declined to comment. "I've given my testimony," said Blake, who appeared before the grand jury in December. "I don't think they asked me that."

    * * *

    In the months before the application was filed, Bakke said he repeatedly told Lyons that he needed to present such a letter of credit to HUD. "Eight or ten times I was asking him for it," Bakke said.

    The letter finally came to Bakke by fax. "I assumed it originated in Lyons' office and was signed by Cooper," said Bakke, who has been interviewed by an FBI agent working on Lyons' case.

    "It came from Lyons' office."

    As the grand jury continued to focus attention on the Cooper forgeries on Thursday morning, Hobson, Sheila Perry, who is another of Lyons' secretaries, and an unidentified woman made brief appearances before the jurors.

    Each of the three spent fewer than five minutes before the grand jury, before spending several hours in the federal building, where the FBI and U.S. attorney's offices are located.

    The three declined to comment on why they were brought to the federal building. Some lawyers familiar with federal prosecutions said authorities may be seeking handwriting samples from them, too.

    Typically, if authorities want to examine the handwriting of a witness, a grand jury foreman will instruct the witness to write samples in the presence of federal agents.
    -- Times staff writers David Dahl and Larry Dougherty contributed to this report.


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