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Forgeries put Lyons in the center of it all

By DAVID BARSTOW and MONICA DAVEY

©St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 1998


On a winter day in 1996, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons was in his St. Petersburg church office talking on the telephone with Brenda Harris, one of his employees
Following the forgeries: A Times news graphic
at the National Baptist Convention USA Inc.

Harris was house hunting in Nashville, Tenn., where the convention is based. Harris, who had confided to her assistant that she and Lyons were secretly engaged, wanted Lyons' help financing the house.

Lyons called his executive assistant into his office. He told her to go out and wait by the fax machine, the assistant recalled. A document rolled out of the machine, she said. It was a convention resolution guaranteeing a $300,000 loan for Harris.

The resolution had lines for three convention signatures: president Lyons, chairman A.H. Newman and general secretary Roscoe D. Cooper Jr.

All three signature lines were blank.

The assistant took the resolution to Lyons in his office.

He was alone.

Hours later, Lyons instructed her to FedEx the original of the resolution to Harris. All three lines had signatures.

The assistant, who no longer works for Lyons, has recounted this story to authorities investigating Lyons' financial dealings as leader of the nation's largest black denomination since 1994.

Only one of the three signatures on the resolution was genuine -- that of Henry J. Lyons. The others were crude forgeries, probably done by someone attempting to disguise their writing, handwriting experts say.

The assistant's account is part of a web of circumstance -- from handwriting comparisons to fax machine imprints to witness recollections -- that links Lyons to a pattern of forgery, a pattern that benefited Lyons and his friends.

The bogus resolution is one of at least four forgeries that are a major focus of a federal grand jury investigation. Authorities have questioned numerous associates of Lyons about the phony signatures.

The grand jury has subpoenaed testimony and records from Harris, but her attorneys last week filed a motion to quash the subpoena, saying it is "overly broad" in scope. Also last week, one of Lyons' secretaries was asked to provide handwriting samples to the FBI.

Six people, at least, had an interest in one forged document or another. Only one person, Lyons, had something to gain from all four documents: a loan for Harris, a credit card deal, a home purchase on Tierra Verde, a project for the elderly.

Each of the forged papers was intended to secure financing from lending institutions. That is exactly what Lyons did in 1988, when he knowingly pledged fake credit union share certificates as collateral to obtain an $85,000 bank loan.

To date, no witness has publicly identified who is falsifying signatures of convention officials on financial documents. Without eyewitnesses, experts say pinpointing a forger can be difficult.

Of the four recent forgeries, Lyons' attorney said he was "not aware" of Lyons signing, or asking a subordinate to sign, another person's name.

"I've not had an opportunity to ask him about any of the documents," Grady Irvin said.

Fax numbers

Months after taking leadership of the National Baptist Convention, Lyons cut a deal with a Nashville bank to market credit cards to NBC members.

On April 25, 1995, Union Planters Bank of Middle Tennessee wired $300,000 to the United Bank in St. Petersburg, where Lyons kept a secret account.

The money was a loan to the convention to pay the expenses of marketing Union Planters credit cards to Baptists. The bank sent the money only after it received written assurances from the convention, including a resolution allowing Lyons to carry out the deal.

The name of Roscoe Cooper, general secretary of the convention, was signed at the bottom.

The signature was a fake. Cooper, a pastor in Richmond, Va., says he didn't know about any such resolution or board vote or credit-card deal.

Now the disputed resolution is exhibit B in a lawsuit Union Planters has filed to recover its $300,000. Of that, Lyons says he paid himself $75,000 and convention official Fred Demps $150,000 as their "commissions" for a deal that resulted in fewer than 100 new credit cards for the bank.

Demps, who denies getting a commission from Lyons, would not talk about the resolution.

Union Planters officials could not recall which convention official supplied the phony resolution. They dealt mainly with Demps and Lyons, but many loan papers came through the convention's attorney.

The attorney, Richard Manning, who represented the convention in corporate deals in 1995, quit because his legal fees were not paid.

In an interview, Manning described Lyons' style of dealmaking in terms echoed by others who worked for Lyons: He often delegates grunt work to subordinates, but he retains ultimate control.

Manning dealt mainly with Demps on the Union Planters deal. Demps, a former janitor and pastor of a Palatka church, had little expertise in business negotiations but was "totally, totally loyal to Dr. Lyons."

"Most things of consequence (Demps) cleared through Lyons," Manning said. "He and Demps were in constant contact on a daily basis."

Manning said any convention documents he submitted came from Demps or Lyons.

Manning still has his copy of the forged resolution. On it, he said, is a fax imprint identifying the sender: Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church -- 813-327-0656. Bethel is Lyons' church. Manning received another convention document, a list of officers, from the same fax number that day. Cooper's signature appeared on it, too. Manning said the signature on the list looks the same as the phony Cooper signature on the resolution.

"There's no question about it," he said, adding that he never thought to question the signatures.

"If these came out of Henry Lyons' office I wouldn't have doubted for one minute that they were okay," he said. "You've got to rely on the top man, and Henry Lyons was it."

'Worst kept secret'

In September 1995, Lyons hired Brenda Harris to lead the NBC's office of conventions and meetings.

Harris, 47, left her job in San Diego to go to Nashville, home of the convention's World Center.

Even before her move east, Lyons and Harris were closer than colleagues, said Renee Fagans, Harris' longtime assistant who followed her boss to the World Center.

Lyons, who met Harris in 1994, kept a drawer of clothes at Harris' home in Oceanside, Calif., Fagans said. "She said it was love at first sight on her part, but it took him longer."

Lyons and Harris have strongly denied any romance. But Fagans said Harris told her the two were secretly engaged. Lyons told Harris he planned to wait until after his re-election was secured in 1999 to divorce his wife, Deborah, of 25 years, Fagans said.

Meanwhile, the two planned to buy a home in Nashville they might one day share, Fagans said.

An attorney for Harris, Nader Baydoun, questions Fagans' credibility, describing her as a "disgruntled employee" who was ""terminated for cause."

"She has an ax to grind," Baydoun said, while acknowledging that Harris and Fagans once were close friends.

Fagans disputed Baydoun. She said she quit her job in April 1996 because she missed California. Harris, she said, gave her a glowing reference letter after she left.

Lyons took several steps to secure housing for Harris, whose credit rating was marked by two bankruptcy filings. Even to rent a $1,500-a-month home in Nashville, Lyons had to co-sign her lease.

The resolution commiting the convention to guarantee a $300,000 home loan for Harris is dated Jan. 23, 1996.

Lyons' former executive assistant from June 1995 to June 1996 has told investigators she did not see who signed the three signatures on the resolution. All she knows is this: When she took the document into Lyons' office it had no signatures. When she retrieved it later that day, it had three signatures. Lyons was the only person she saw in the office.

The assistant asked not to be named by the Times because she and her family, well-known in the Tampa Bay area, have faced recriminations from some residents.

Lyons has not addressed how false signatures got on the resolution.

Baydoun, Harris' attorney, said: "My client had absolutely nothing to do with any forgery."

Lyons has said he offered to help Harris with housing as he did for two other new employees. He and Harris say the resolution was never used.

Regina F. Cooper, spokeswoman for Lyons' attorneys (no relation to Roscoe Cooper), said in a statement Tuesday night that the resolution "was in fact adopted by NBC's board of directors." Regina Cooper did not address who signed the names on the resolution but described the Times' coverage as "beyond the bounds of decent and acceptable journalism."

According to Fagans, Lyons and Harris decided to apply jointly for a home loan with their combined income and respective credit histories.

Harris discussed applying for a mortgage with officials at Union Planters Bank where Lyons had recently negotiated the credit-card deal. In a March 1996 letter to Harris, a bank official listed financial records she and her "fiance" would have to provide for a joint mortgage application.

"See you Wednesday!" the letter concluded.

Harris changed plans.

Two months later, she bought a $340,000 house on her own, putting $102,000 down. Home buyers can avoid strict loan rules with large down payments.

Lyons has said that Harris, whose listed salary was $35,000, did not require any financial assistance to buy the house. But according to Fagans, Lyons supplied much of the $102,000 down payment.

"He was very, very good to her," Fagans said. "I"m aware of a $50,000 gift. She shared several instances with me of nest-egg money."

Baydoun said Harris "never utilized any assistance from the convention" when she bought her house. He declined to comment on whether Lyons helped Harris make her $102,000 down payment.

Fagans, who twice has been flown to Tampa to meet with federal authorities investigating Lyons, said that when Lyons was in Nashville he spent nights at Harris' house. They also posed as husband and wife during getaways to such resort areas as Gatlinburg, Tenn., she said.

"It was the worst kept secret since the Immaculate Conception."

Harris was supposed to testify last Thursday before the federal grand jury investigating Lyons, but her testimony was delayed by her attorneys.

Baydoun said he is attempting to quash the grand jury subpoena, which he said seeks "huge volumes of documents" about Harris' work for Lyons and the convention.

"The scope was just too broad," Baydoun said, estimating the material would fill "in excess" of 25 boxes and would take days to collect -- "if we stopped everything."

The same writing

In early 1996, Lyons bought a $700,000 house on Tierra Verde, then signed over half-ownership to Bernice Edwards, a convention employee.

A document was submitted to the bankers who gave Lyons a $455,000 loan: a lease in which the NBC promised to pay Lyons $4,000 a month in rent for the house. The lease gave the bank added assurance Lyons could make house payments.

The lease had Roscoe Cooper's and Newman's names on it. Both men have signed affidavits saying they never signed the lease and knew nothing of it.

The lease carried the convention seal. Lyons kept a metal stamp of the seal in his church desk, employees said. It is not known how many other stamps exist.

Lyons has denied knowledge of the lease. He has no idea "how it got signed," he says.

As co-owner, Edwards was the only other person who could benefit from the phony lease. Edwards' past makes her a target of suspicion.

Edwards, 41, has used numerous names and Social Security numbers and left behind failed business endeavors and bankruptcy filings. Edwards was convicted of embezzling $60,000.

Circumstances, however, point away from Edwards as the forger.

Three of the Cooper forgeries, including the lease, were probably written by the same person, perhaps writing with the non-dominant hand, handwriting experts told the Times.

Edwards' tie to the string of forgeries begins and ends with the Tierra Verde lease. Edwards had no apparent involvement in the other two deals where the same Cooper signature showed up. She had nothing to gain if Brenda Harris got a home loan. She had no part in the credit-card deal in a faraway city.

Similarly, Harris had an interest in her home loan, not Tierra Verde or credit cards. Demps could gain from credit cards, not Tierra Verde or Harris' loan.

Only Lyons had an interest in all three deals.

The fourth Cooper forgery looks markedly unlike the others. In that 1997 letter, the convention pledged a $750,000 line of credit toward Bethel Village, an assisted-living facility for elderly residents Lyons was planning to build near his church.

That letter, too, has links to Lyons.

In separate examinations, two handwriting experts concluded that Lyons' secretary, Berlena Hudson, "probably" wrote that signature.

The letter was written on Lyons' letterhead. Another of his secretaries typed it.

Hudson denies any wrongdoing.

An old forgery

Patterns are important to prosecutors building a circumstantial case. Prosecutors look at a defendant's past for similar crimes because they can use the old charges to help prove new cases.

Authorities are asking about Lyons' past.

On June 3, 1988, Lyons borrowed $85,000 from Citizens & Southern bank. Lyons was president of the Florida General Baptist Convention, the state branch of the NBC. He told the bank his group needed money to repay debts.

To secure the loan, Lyons gave the bank a resolution on his letterhead. The resolution said the Florida convention's executive board, in an "emergency meeting" at his church, had pledged three credit union share certificates worth $109,000 as collateral. (Share certificates are the credit union equivalent of a certificate of deposit at a bank.)

The resolution was signed by the chairman and secretary of the state convention.

The secretary is dead, but then-chairman A.B. Coleman of Jacksonville said his signature was forged. There was no emergency meeting, he said.

The resolution did not surprise him. Lyons, Coleman said, was secretive about financial dealings.

"There were a lot of things that were done that I didn't have knowledge of," Coleman said. "Dr. Lyons had complete control over finances and he did whatever he wanted to do."

More secrets were ahead.

In late 1990, a C? banker called the credit union. The phone was disconnected.

The IMA Federal Credit Union was shut down months earlier for weak performance. The tiny credit union had been controlled by Lyons and his friend the Rev. Wilkins Garrett. Garrett's wife, Brenda, managed the credit union.

C? officials met with Lyons and Garrett to find out what had become of the $109,000 in collateral. According to bank memos of that meeting, Lyons and Garrett offered various explanations. They said the share certificate proceeds had been turned over to the convention, but they weren't sure where the money was. They feared it may have been embezzled by the convention's secretary. Or, they said, it may have been invested in a failed insurance venture. They weren't sure, but they were investigating. In the meantime, Lyons promised to provide new collateral.

The C? bankers called the federal regulators who closed the credit union. No such share certificates ever existed, the regulators said.

C? bankers confronted Wilkins Garrett about the non-existent collateral. Garrett admitted he and Lyons lied. But he blamed Lyons. He said Lyons "handled his affairs loosely" and engaged in "unprofessional practices," according to the memos.

Garrett said Lyons came to him in 1988 for a quick favor. Lyons wanted to raise $85,000 for a convention construction project. For that, Lyons needed collateral. "Lyons pressed Garrett and his wife to provide (Lyons) with blank IMA share certificates which he could then pledge at C?," the memos state.

The certificates were made out to the convention's "Scholarship Fund." No such fund existed, Coleman said. The certificates were given fake numbers, issue dates and redemption dates.

The certificates had to be signed by a credit union official. Brenda Garrett signed them as Brenda Paul, her maiden name.

Saying he wanted to protect his wife, Garrett promised he "would disassociate himself from Lyons once the loan is repaid," the memos state.

Even so, the C? bankers called federal authorities, who prepared bank fraud charges against Lyons and Garrett. The two ministers avoided prosecution by paying restitution and completing a yearlong pre-trial intervention program.


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