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Bank loan secured with forged papers

By MIKE WILSON, DAVID BARSTOW and MONICA DAVEY

©St. Petersburg Times, published September 18, 1997


A Nashville bank advanced $300,000 to the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. based on a phony resolution authorizing the Rev. Henry J. Lyons to accept the money, records show.

The resolution purported to carry the signature of the Rev. Roscoe Cooper, the convention's general secretary.

The signature is not Cooper's.

"No, it is not," Cooper said Wednesday, after being faxed a copy of the resolution by the Times.

This is the third convention document that has surfaced bearing crude forgeries of Cooper's signature.

The three bogus signatures have two elements in common: They appear to have been written by the same person, and they arose in documents related to financial transactions involving Lyons, who is facing state and federal criminal investigations for his activities as president of the convention.

The resolution, presented to the Union Planters Bank in Nashville, Tenn., was part of a deal to market credit cards to convention members. It said Lyons "is hereby authorized to execute and deliver a note binding this corporation to repay said advance/loan."

It also states: "I, Roscoe Cooper, Secretary of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., hereby certify that the foregoing resolution is a true and accurate copy of a resolution adopted April 12, 1995, by the polling of the Board of Directors of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc."

Cooper said he could not recall any such vote by the convention board.

Has he ever given permission for someone else to sign his name?

"No, I have not given anyone permission to sign my name," he said. "And I would not have signed what has not been authorized by the board of directors."

The resolution is dated April 17, 1995. Eight days later, the bank wired $300,000 to the United Bank in St. Petersburg, where Lyons kept several accounts, including a secret "discretionary" account called the Baptist Builder Fund. It was not known into which account the $300,000 was deposited.

Officials at Union Planters Bank said they would not have sent the money without the resolution.

"All I can say is it is customary when banks loan money to corporations, to get some evidence and authority for the loan," said Robert Campbell, an attorney for the bank. "It gives assurance that the corporation is supportive."

Bank officials thought the convention would use the $300,000 to market Union Planters credit cards to members of the convention, they said.

Instead, Lyons has said in interviews, he and another convention official took $225,000 of the money as their commissions for setting up and promoting the credit card deal.

The venture was a flop.

Few credit cards were issued, and the convention has failed to make a single payment on the $300,000 loan, the bank alleges in a lawsuit filed Friday in Nashville.

In a brief telephone interview Wednesday night, Lyons declined to discuss the resolution until after he has examined it.

Asked whether he recalled the convention's board of directors voting to approve the Union Planters deal in 1995, Lyons would only say: "I recall in Denver the convention forgiving me."

He was referring to the convention's annual meeting earlier this month. Lyons retained his presidency after winning four separate votes of confidence.

While those votes quelled a movement in the convention to oust Lyons, they did not halt ongoing criminal investigations by the U.S. Attorney's office in Tampa or Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe.

Falsifying such a resolution to obtain a bank loan can be a crime under state and federal laws. Bill Jung, a former federal prosecutor, said three elements are required to constitute federal bank fraud: There must be a false statement made to the bank; the statement must be "material" to the bank's decision to give the loan; the bank must be federally insured.

Proving the first element -- "falsity" -- can be easy when it comes to a fake signature, Jung said. "Handwriting experts can be pretty accurate these days," he said.

A corporate resolution likely would qualify as "material," he said. Banks routinely call for them to support loans and other transactions.

"At any bank in town," he said, "you can't even open a company checking account without a corporate resolution."

Investigators typically pursue bank fraud cases only if funds were provided -- and not paid back.

Some of these key elements are missing in the other two instances in which Cooper says his signature was forged.

Last year, when Lyons was trying to buy a $700,000 home on Tierra Verde, a lease was presented to the lender, World Savings and Loan. The lease committed the National Baptist Convention to pay rent to Lyons. Bank officials sought the lease for added assurance that Lyons would be able to make the mortgage payments.

A standard, one-page business document, the lease bore the seal of the convention. It also bore two signatures, purportedly of Cooper and the Rev. A.H. Newman, convention chairman.

Since then, Cooper and Newman signed sworn affidavits saying they signed no lease and knew nothing of it. The affidavits were sought by investigators.

Lyons, too, has denied knowing anything about the lease -- or how it got into the hands of the bank officials who were considering him for a loan. He has said he does not recall it. He suggested that someone else might have given it to the bank.

Attorneys say the transaction is missing two key elements of bank fraud: So far, Lyons has made his mortgage payments to World Savings. In addition, World Savings officials have told investigators the lease was not an important factor in their decision to make the loan.

In the second case, also from 1996, Cooper's name appeared on a convention resolution that promised to guarantee a $300,000 home loan for Brenda Harris, a convention employee who has been romantically linked to Lyons.

Some convention members have said they cannot remember the resolution, which was dated Jan. 23, 1996, and purportedly was approved at a board meeting in Mobile, Ala. Some board members did not recall discussing the issue or voting on it.

On the resolution, Cooper's signature looks similar to the signatures on the Tierra Verde lease and Union Planters document. It does not resemble his own signature.

Lyons said the resolution was voted upon by the convention. He also has denied a romantic relationship with Harris.

This case also appears to be missing crucial elements of bank fraud: There is no evidence the document was presented to the bank that gave Harris her mortgage. Lyons and Harris each said the document was never needed.

The Union Planters case could pose a legal problem because the phony resolution was used to obtain the loan, and the convention has allegedly failed to repay the debt.

Campbell, the attorney for Union Planters, said the bank never had any reason to question the authenticity of the documents provided by the convention.

"We had no information that anything we had was not genuine," he said.

The bank has not decided its next move in light of Cooper's falsified signature, Campbell said. "At this time I don't have enough information to make that determination."

The transaction has drawn interest from the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office. Campbell said his office had been called Tuesday by one of the state attorney's senior investigators.

"I'll return the call," he said.


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