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By DAVID BARSTOW, CRAIG PITTMAN, MIKE WILSON and MONICA DAVEY
©St. Petersburg Times, published February 27, 1998
NASHVILLE -- Lawyers for a defiant Henry J. Lyons say they will accept no plea deals with prosecutors who accuse the Baptist leader of turning the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. into a criminal racket.
"We are in this fight to the very, very, very end," attorney Grady Irvin said Thursday. "There is no give at all."
With his daughter and 40 ministers crowded behind Lyons during a news conference at the NBC's world headquarters, his attorneys hinted at one strategy they may use to defend their client against charges of racketeering and grand theft.
Attorney F. Lee Bailey said the allegations were unprecedented, pitting state prosecutors against a religious denomination.
"I did not know of any church named in a racketeering count until yesterday," Bailey said. "There are some awesome issues in this case that relate to the conflict between church and state protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution that we will be exploring."
Former convention employee Bernice V. Edwards, also accused of racketeering, is expected to arrive in Florida today to face charges.
The Milwaukee woman spent a night in a Wisconsin jail before agreeing to fly to Pinellas County today to face charges as a condition of her release from jail, her attorney said.
During a 10-minute hearing Thursday morning in a Milwaukee courtroom, Edwards, who has avoided reporters since revelations about her began emerging last summer, smiled and shielded her face with her hand to avoid waiting cameras.
"She has agreed to appear (in Pinellas County) voluntarily," attorney Patrick Knight said. Her night in jail, he said, was unpleasant.
"What are you going to do?" he said. "She's happy to be out."
A day after Lyons turned himself in at the Pinellas County Jail, accused of using fraud and extortion to steal millions of dollars, Lyons was exhausted and shaken from the experience.
"Quite an ordeal," said the NBC president and pastor of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church. "It's a weird feeling and it's an eerie feeling too."
It reminded him of ninth grade in Gainesville. As part of a "junior deputy" program with the local sheriff's office, Lyons was taken on a field trip to a jail. The group toured a cell. Lyons said he could recall the door clanging shut that day.
At that moment, Lyons said, "I promised the Lord I'd never get in jail again."
An affidavit from the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office accuses Lyons of swindling money from big companies by inflating membership numbers, spending money meant for burned churches and hiding $4.8-million in a secret convention account he used mostly for lavish personal purchases.
Lyons did not address specifics during the news conference in the World Center auditorium, but he defended his character.
Speaking of 27 years as pastor at Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church, Lyons said, "I haven't been the monster that I'm portrayed in media, all those years."
"If so, I'm here to tell you black churches know how to get rid of a pastor. You don't have to instruct them or help them or prompt them, they know how to get you out of there."
Lyons said a vote of confidence he got from his church members on Wednesday "lifted and inspired" him. The NBC's executive board, too, vowed during a conference call on Wednesday night to stand by Lyons, he said. Members of the NBC's evangelism committee, attending a previously arranged meeting at the World Center on Thursday, applauded him during the news conference.
"We are beside and with our president," said the Rev. E.J. Jones, chairman of the evangelism board. "We have faith in him carrying us to higher heights."
Lyons said he was "pleased to have their continued support." His job now, he said, was to get back to work. "They want their president involved in the day-to-day affairs of the convention. I am attempting to do that."
The charges brought this week by Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe end an eight-month investigation that began after Lyons' wife set fire to a $700,000 house Lyons owns with Bernice Edwards.
"I have some sense of relief," Lyons said, "knowing that, at a point, maybe we can come to some point of closure in the future. But we have attorneys for that. And they are handling that.
"They certainly cost enough. What I've been gearing up with these men that are gathered around me . . . is how are we going to pay for this? So praise God, I do have that support of the brethren throughout the nation. Naturally, not everybody. Who has everybody?"
A federal grand jury continues to look into Lyons' financial dealings.
The convention will not pay Lyons' legal bills, NBC general secretary Roscoe Cooper said Thursday. "Dr. Lyons is assuming responsibility for his legal fees." Cooper, whose name has been forged on at least four financial documents that benefited Lyons, supported the embattled pastor Thursday. "We remain convinced that he is the one God has raised up to lead us at this time," he said.
"None of the leadership of the convention has broken away from the president," Cooper said. "We believe in the Lord, we believe in the American justice system and we believe when it is all over, amen, he will be exonerated."
Although the convention has struggled financially, Cooper said the group has paid its bills this month. "All things considered, the convention is doing reasonably well," he said.
Lyons will plead innocent when he appears in court next month, his attorneys said.
And that, they said, will be just the start of the fight.
"It will not be a negotiated plea," said attorney Anthony Battaglia. "We will go about proceeding in an orderly and ethical and appropriate manner to defend this action. It will not be a negotiated plea. We will conclude to the end. And we will take whatever steps are necessary to bring about a successful result in this case."
The church-state legal issue will arise, Bailey said, particularly given that the NBC has supported Lyons. Prosecutors say some of the money Lyons took was meant for the convention, but NBC leaders approved a resolution last fall to keep him on as president in spite of the accusations.
The resolution, Bailey said, "approved what had occurred . . . within the . . . rules of the church. Now if there is a separation between church and state it becomes interesting to see the degree to which the law will permit the state to walk into the church and change those rulings or denounce them as criminal, when the so-called victims say no."
In Milwaukee, Edwards was booked into the jail at 8:45 p.m. Wednesday on the racketeering warrant from Pinellas County. On the arrest form, she listed her employers as "self" and "the National Baptist Church." Lyons said he fired Edwards last fall from her public relations post.
She and her attorneys had no idea the arrest was coming, said Patrick Knight, the Milwaukee attorney.
"It was a complete surprise," he said.
She spent the night in jail.
Edwards appeared before a judge late Thursday morning, covering her face with a cupped hand as she entered the courtroom. She was released on $5,000 bail. "Friends" put up the money, said Knight.
Edwards, reached at home Thursday, refused to comment.
A condition of Edwards' bail requires her to turn herself in at the Pinellas County Jail within 24 hours -- by about noon today. Her bail in Pinellas is set at $50,000.
Sheriff's officials apparently had no plans to usher Edwards through the booking process as they did Lyons.
"I have not been given any direction as to our involvement at all," spokeswoman Marianne Pasha said.
If Edwards does not turn herself in as promised, she faces losing the $5,000 she posted in Wisconsin, her attorney said. Milwaukee authorities likely would seek a warrant for her arrest.
Orlando lawyer Richard Rhodes will handle Edwards' defense in Florida. He did not return a reporter's phone call Thursday.
The Milwaukee bail arrangement allowed Edwards to avoid the issue of extradition altogether. She could have chosen to fight extradition or waive it. But even if she had waived it, Edwards would have been required to stay in jail until authorities transported her to Florida.
"Instead, an agreement was worked out," Knight said. This way, Edwards can go on her own to face the racketeering charge, Knight said. She will have to pay for her own airline ticket.
In Nashville, Lyons was asked if he or the convention would consider helping Edwards pay her legal expenses.
"I wouldn't even consider that," he said. "Now don't make it seem like I'm throwing her to the dogs."
Edwards, a convicted embezzler, has a history of using aliases and Social Security numbers other than her own. She also has left behind a trail of broken promises to creditors and former employees.
According to the arrest affidavit, Lyons and Edwards bilked a Canadian cemetery company out of more than $1-million. Edwards called herself "Bree Jones" during her dealings with the Loewen Group.
Lyons and Edwards deposited Loewen's money in secret accounts in St. Petersburg and Milwaukee. They used it to buy, among other things, diamond jewelry, private school tuition, furniture and clothing, the affidavit said.
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