The Rev. Henry Lyons
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Bank must turn over Lyons records
By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
LARGO -- Unless attorneys for the Rev. Henry Lyons can get a delay from an appeals court by Thursday, officials from a St. Petersburg bank must turn over to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office all records from Lyons' accounts, a judge ruled Tuesday.
Circuit Judge Frank Quesada also ruled that the accounts of Lyons' denomination, the National Baptist Convention USA, must be turned over to prosecutors investigating Lyons' finances, despite the objections of an attorney for the convention.
The two-day delay in getting Lyons' bank records angered State Attorney Bernie McCabe, who appeared in court to argue against the motions by Lyons and the Baptist group to block his subpoenas.
"This obstruction of the investigation needs to stop," McCabe told the judge.
Lyons and his wife, Deborah, also came to court. They spoke only to each other and their attorneys.
At one point, Mrs. Lyons left the hearing for a few minutes with her attorney, Kevin Hayslett, to file an unusual motion of their own. The motion declares that her defense attorneys do not want to see the prosecution's investigative files regarding her arson charge.
By filing such a motion, Mrs. Lyons' attorneys have effectively blocked the press and public from viewing those files. The move also blocks prosecutors from seeing what information the defense may develop to help Mrs. Lyons' case before her trial.
After the hearing, as the Lyonses left the courtroom and walked hand-in-hand down the hall, cameras and microphones crowded them so closely that defense attorney Anthony Battaglia ordered the couple to stand in a corner behind a wall of lawyers until the media agreed to back away.
"There's nothing to say," Battaglia told shouting reporters. "We're pleased with the outcome."
In court, Battaglia used an untried legal strategy to argue that the prosecutors' subpoenas violated Lyons' right to privacy, which is spelled out in the Florida Constitution as "the right to be let alone."
To overcome Lyons' right to privacy on his bank records, Battaglia argued, McCabe would have to show to the judge that his investigators already have gathered enough evidence to show "a clear connection between Dr. Lyons and criminal activity. We think the state is going to be unable to prove that at this time."
Over McCabe's objections, the judge ruled that Lyons did indeed have a right to keep his bank records private. But Quesada announced he would meet behind closed doors with McCabe, three assistant prosecutors and an investigator to determine whether the prosecutor's office had gathered enough evidence to meet the test Battaglia proposed.
When Quesada emerged from that closed-door session, he ruled that the prosecutors had met that test and ordered Lyons' bank records be turned over after a 48-hour delay.
An attorney for the National Baptist Convention, Bruce Howie, also invoked the right of privacy, as well as freedom of religion and freedom of assembly, to argue that McCabe should not be allowed to see the convention's bank records. He specifically cited a case in which Alabama authorities tried to obtain a membership list of the NAACP.
McCabe said he wasn't interested in collecting a list of church members and did not object to the bank deleting those names.
"These subpoenas deal with an investigation of secular activities, not religious activities," he said.
Lyons, president of the 8.5-million member Baptist group, has come under scrutiny since his wife's arrest July 6 on charges that she set fire to a $700,000 Tierra Verde house Lyons bought with another woman, convicted embezzler Bernice Edwards.
The state attorney's office has subpoenaed records from United Bank and Trust Co., the St. Petersburg bank where Lyons maintained an account called the Baptist Builder Fund -- a fund other convention officials say they have never heard of.
United Bank financed a $135,000 Mercedes-Benz bought this year in the name of Edwards and Lyons' church, Bethel Metropolitan Baptist. A cashier's check from United Bank was used as a deposit on a house that Edwards and Lyons tried to buy together in Charlotte, N.C.
Although the attorneys were careful Tuesday to avoid saying exactly what the subpoenas were asking for, the judge at one point mentioned that one subpoena sought records of checks of $500 or more deposited in Baptist accounts. That amount is the threshold for a charge of grand theft.
Throughout Tuesday's hearing, a running theme was the role the press has played in Lyons' case. Battaglia suggested that McCabe relied on news accounts for the basis of his subpoenas. Quesada joked that he did not know who had been running the better investigation: McCabe's office or the St. Petersburg Times. McCabe laughed.
"They're ahead of us, judge," he said.
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