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  • As the convention looms, answers elude Lyons

    By TIM ROCHE, CRAIG PITTMAN and MONICA DAVEY
    Times Staff Writers
    ©St. Petersburg Times, published Aug. 29, 1997

    ST. PETERSBURG -- Pressed to explain the finances of the National Baptist Convention USA, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons cannot make things add up.

    As he prepares to present the financial picture to a convention meeting that will decide his fate as president, Lyons is struggling to account for deals the organization has with corporations, deals that brought big commissions for himself and a few others but far less for the convention.

    "I'm not the best bookkeeper in the world," Lyons said in an interview with the Times.

    Just days before the Denver meeting, Lyons still could not explain where some funds went, where they came from and where they are now.

    In fact, Lyons found two errors in his own list of 11 deals the convention had with corporations. At least two of the companies he named dispute his figures.

    Lyons said he wasn't sure of some other figures, names of companies and details of the deals. His memories were shaky, he admitted.

    "I'm still digging through the records."

    The 55-year-old Lyons, viewed as a financial savior when he took over the 8.5-million member convention four years ago, now finds himself rattled by the same issues that helped put him in office. Exhausted and 20 pounds thinner, Lyons told the Times of the mounting political crisis, personal turmoil and media attention of the past two months.

    "I hate to go to bed. I hate to wake up. I can't eat. . . . The perception of me right now is I'm about the worst man walking around here in St. Petersburg. That hurts."

    In a 90-minute interview in the cul-de-sac outside his St. Petersburg home late Wednesday, Lyons:

    Admitted he erred by giving up to 75 percent commissions to himself and two other convention workers, including convicted embezzler Bernice Edwards, on some convention deals with other corporations. He also erred, he said, when he failed to inform convention members of some of those deals and failed to include the deals in the convention's annual report.

    Declined to say whether his income tax returns reflect luxury items, including a time share condominium in Lake Tahoe or a Rolls Royce co-owned by Lyons and Edwards. Lyons said he feared he might run into trouble if he answered the question. "I don't need to stand here and talk myself in jail," Lyons said. "I'm right now trying to pull all my tax stuff together."

    Said he feared the tax exempt status of the organization could be in jeopardy, particularly because of a $2,500 political contribution he made for a Democratic dinner. The contribution, he said, has been returned to him.

    Acknowledged that co-owning a $700,000 house with Edwards on Tierra Verde was an error.

    Said his church secretary was acting alone -- without his permission -- when church checks were cashed at a local check-cashing agency.

    Denied an abusive relationship with a Jacksonville woman, but did not deny similar allegations by his first wife.

    Described his plans to address followers in Denver next week. Lyons wants to fight on, but will step aside if that's the message he receives.

    When Lyons took the helm of the convention, there were no corporate deals, he said. Struggling to pay the massive debt on its world center in Nashville, Tenn., the convention was nearly broke. Lyons said he saw a chance to raise new revenues by selling access to his convention members.

    Eleven deals -- described in a document Lyons presented to an 18-member convention investigative committee -- brought more than $1.34-million, according to the document obtained by the Times.

    Of that, Lyons explained Wednesday, some $877,500 went to Lyons, Edwards and the Rev. Frederick Demps, a friend of Lyons who was vice president of the Florida General Baptist Convention when Lyons was its president. Demps is not listed as a board member or employee of the National Baptist Convention in its most recent annual report.

    The national convention got about $295,000, Lyons explained. The remaining funds went toward contract expenses or were not yet accounted for.

    Those commissions for Lyons, Edwards and Demps were too high, Lyons said. The convention's investigative committee members thought so too when they saw the document for the first time on Saturday, Lyons said.

    "Let me say this, I agree it's a bit high, but that was the deal I cut," he said. "And, of course, that's what I said to them Saturday cause they asked me the same thing: "Mr. President, don't you think that's a bit high?' I said: "Okay, it's a bit high. I agree. . . . As I look at it again, and I guess I've got a lot of hindsight these days, I would not make it that high.' "

    He also said he should have told board members what he was up to. Some of the deals, he said, he did discuss. Others he did not. Only one is noted in the convention's most recent annual report.

    "Why not tell it?" Lyons said. "It is something I would definitely not ever do again. I promise you that."

    Here is how Lyons described some of the contracts:

    Union Planters Bank in Tennessee paid the convention $300,000 to offer National Baptist Convention credit cards. The money was split this way: Lyons got $75,000; Demps, who secured the contract got $150,000. The remaining $75,000 went to the convention.

    Deborah Hester, a vice president of community relations for the bank, said the company did arrange the credit card program, but that it attracted few customers. The bank, however, had no record of paying money to the convention for the program or anything else, she said.

    Globe Life and Accident Insurance Co. of Oklahoma City paid the convention $600,000 for a list of names to be used in direct-mail marketing. Edwards got $365,000 of that; Lyons received $100,000. The convention took the remaining $135,000, which went to schools and educational funding for colleges, he said.

    Lyons acknowledged that he wasn't certain how many names were on the mailing list or where Edwards got it.

    In an earlier interview, Lyons said the list contained 9-million names for 25 cents apiece. "I think even I'm off," Lyons said. He was unable to clear up the matter immediately but said he would call Edwards, who has been fired as director of corporate public relations, to get some answers.

    Lyons said Wednesday he was not certain how much he received from a Canadian-based conglomerate, the Loewen Corp., to market cemetery plots and services to members of the National Baptist Convention. Lyons had endorsed the white-owned company as the convention's "death-care provider of choice," angering many black undertakers who felt Lyons had betrayed them.

    In his own document for the investigative committee, Lyons said the convention got $200,000, with Edwards receiving $75,000. The annual report says $100,000. On Wednesday, Lyons said the convention may have received $300,000 or $400,000, and he was not sure about his or Edwards' commissions.

    "I'm foggy on this."

    Edwards also received a $25,000 "Christmas gift" from a Loewen official, Lyons said for the first time Wednesday. Loewen officials could not confirm that.

    One of the more lucrative deals described by Lyons involved a telecommunications company known as Nettele Systems Limited. He said the Virginia-based company paid $100,000 to provide long-distance telephone services and calling cards to the convention's members. Demps, who finalized the deal, was paid 50 percent for his commission and Lyons was paid 25 percent. The rest, Lyons said, went to support colleges.

    Lyons said he saw his role in the deal to "get out and try to push these telephone credit cards."

    It worked the same as the others promotions he controlled, Lyons said: "I got to get out and beat the bushes. I got to literally leave here and go to Atlanta, Birmingham, New York, Denver, Los Angeles and promote it like that."

    But the phone company was disappointed.

    Nettele president Py Lam said Lyons and Demps promised at least 75 percent of the convention's 8.5-million members would switch to Nettele as a long-distance carrier. "They promised us millions of members in a matter of weeks," Lam said. In the end, only a few hundred people joined the company.

    "We always trusted them," Lam said. "We gave them cash. Very seldom we wrote them checks; they don't like checks. We thought he was a man of God and very honest. We learned the hard way."

    Lam also said Lyons misrepresented how much the phone company paid the convention. The amount, Lam said, was closer to $1-million. He said the company has broken off ties with the convention.

    What did Lyons spend his share of the corporate deals on?

    "Basically," Lyons said, "I'm not a buyer.

    "I wear one color. I go to the mall twice a year. Look at these shoes," he said, pointing down to black dress shoes beneath his dark suit. "These are workingman shoes."

    The luxury items Lyons has owned with Edwards paint a different picture.

    The house Lyons bought with Edwards on Tierra Verde last year cost $700,000. The money for the place, Lyons maintains, came from Edwards. Some of it was "held" in a convention account, but it belonged to her.

    "I believed she was wealthy," Lyons said of Edwards, who has filed for bankruptcy four times since 1992, chalked up numerous debts and left a trail of bounced checks. "I still believe that."

    Edwards supplied Lyons with "mega-dollars" in his 1994 campaign, Lyons said.

    "I was just a little poor pitiful boy from the South out there trying to hop them airplanes . . . but when I met her, I'm here to tell you, the money started to flow."

    Lyons said he never wondered about the source of Edwards' wealth. "I did not ask her that. I haven't to this day asked her where did she get so much money."

    On July 6, Lyons' wife, Deborah, was accused of setting fire to the house on Tierra Verde. At the time she told authorities she thought her husband was having an affair with Edwards.

    The house, Lyons explained Wednesday, was for Edwards. In July, Lyons called the place a national guest house for the convention.

    Why did his story switch?

    "I'm not trying to change it. It was her house. But for me it was the national guest house. That was the deal."

    "I haven't changed that. I haven't changed one thing."

    Looking back, he said, he would not buy a house with Edwards again. "I shouldn't have done that, and if I did it, I should have had my wife along every step of the way. That's an error. That's a great mistake."

    Within a week of the fire in Tierra Verde, investigators learned that Lyons' secretary had cashed about $28,000 in convention checks at America's Cash Express in Webb Plaza near downtown St. Petersburg. Many of the checks were payable to the convention's fund-raising accounts.

    A letter kept on file at the store gave the secretary, Sheila J. Perry, permission to convert the donations to cash. Lyons' signature was on the letter, but investigators say it was a stamp or facsimile.

    Lyons agreed, saying he had nothing to do with the checks. "Whatever it was Sheila was doing was not . . . with my permission. Definitely."

    Lyons called the check-cashing "a heavy legal matter. Plus it's penny-ante," he said. "I mean my Jesus, give me a little credit."

    Lyons also denied allegations of abuse against a Jacksonville woman.

    Earlene Battle, who met Lyons at a revival in 1987, told a lawyer that the pair began a romantic relationship which turned violent. She became depressed and suicidal and demanded that Lyons pay for her medical bills, according to the lawyer.

    Lyons, who described Battle only as a "good friend," said he may have helped Battle with money. He does that for many people in need, he said. "I can't remember. I have always helped her along."

    Was there any deal to pay Battle? "If there is, I know nothing about it," he said. "I have never abused Ms. Battle anywhere."

    Battle declined to comment Thursday, saying she plans to present her side of the story in an exclusive interview with the National Enquirer during the meeting in Denver.

    Lyons' first wife, Patricia, also has claimed she was beaten with a belt and punched by Lyons in the late 1960s.

    "If Patti says I did that," Lyons said Wednesday, "I don't remember. If she says I did it, God forgive me, I was young."

    Lyons' third wife -- of 25 years -- arrived home late Wednesday during the interview. Deborah Lyons went inside without comment. "I'm having to borrow from her strength," Lyons said. "She is doing pretty good."

    Next week, Lyons expects a fight at the annual meeting in Denver. He thinks the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson, a New York pastor who was defeated by Lyons in 1994, wants his job.

    "I'm worried about the organization," Lyons said. "I've done damage here and I'm concerned about that."

    He will not resign. He will agree to, though, if the investigative committee tells him to. Then, he says, he will go without a fuss.

    He hopes he will not have to.

    "I have caused a lot of hurt. I am hurt, my family is hurt, my church is hurt, African-American people are hurt. And I believe the nation is hurt. I really do. But I really would like the opportunity to clean up my name. I really would."

    -- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan and researchers Carolyn Hardnett, Kitty Bennett and John Martin contributed to this report. 


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