The Rev. Henry Lyons
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Baptist leader says he's been persecuted
Rev. Henry Lyons with his wife Deborah at his side has denied allegations that he financed a lavish lifestyle with church funds. Lyons, head of the National Baptist Convention USA, has been plagued by allegations of marital infidelity and misusing church funds since his wife was arrested for arson of a Tierra Verde home. (Photo from Times files)
By TIM ROCHE, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- In the same church where he often lectured so eloquently on spiritual matters, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons stood Friday before reporters from around the nation and denied two of man's greatest sins: avarice and adultery.
"I have and always will be a strong supporter of family values," Lyons said as his wife stood quietly beside him. "This crisis drives home the need for all of us to appreciate and to hold the family as a strong institution."
Lyons took the offensive in his statement, intended as a response to revelations that he owns a $700,000 house in Tierra Verde, a Rolls Royce, a Mercedes-Benz and shares a bank account with another woman who is a convicted embezzler.
The president of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., the nation's largest association of black churches, said he had been persecuted in news accounts this week because he is an affluent black man.
"What are you trying to imply? That blacks in this country cannot be successful and live well?" Lyons asked.
"It is unfortunate that after more than 26 years as the pastor of this church, 37 years in the preaching ministry and 55 years of prudent money management down to the point of sacrifice at a point that there's not a citizen in this city who doesn't know I drove one car for 17 years."
But his wealth, according to records and interviews, did not come until he was elected president of the national convention, a post that allows him to spend money liberally with little oversight.
His lifestyle became an issue after his wife, Deborah, was charged with burglary and arson Sunday after investigators said she set several fires inside the Tierra Verde house Lyons owns with another woman. Mrs. Lyons told investigators that she had only recently learned about the house, after finding the deed in her husband's briefcase, and suspected he was having an affair.
When she was arrested, Lyons and the home's co-owner, Bernice V. Edwards, were traveling in Nigeria.
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On Friday, the minister said Edwards is the group's public relations director for corporate affairs.
"It is a tragedy that a close friend -- and a close friend of our family -- for several years and a business partner of mine has been falsely misrepresented as a mistress of mine," Lyons said. "I want to state straight out that I categorically deny that Ms. Bernice Edwards and I were carrying on an affair."
This brought an almost whispered "amen" from his wife, Deborah, wearing a Chanel-style pink suit with a black velvet bow and her hair coiffed in a careful chignon. At times, she seemed to stare into the distance as her husband read from a prepared statement.
"This misunderstanding has been the catalyst for this unfortunate confusion," Lyons went on. "Any business arrangements between Ms. Edwards and myself, my wife has been made or was aware of. There are no hidden secrets between my wife and myself."
The day after her arrest, Mrs. Lyons said in an interview that she had not meant to burn down the house on Tierra Verde. It was an accident, she said. She dropped a match. She said deputies were mistaken about how it happened and what she said to them.
But investigators say a fire was set in several places in the house, which was ransacked.
"I want it thoroughly understood that I absolutely deny that the mortgage loan for the property was obtained for any other reason than as a guest house for developing corporate relationships and receiving national and international visitors in a private setting," Lyons said Friday. "This is nothing new. I want to state straight out that I do not live there. I claim no residence at the Tierra Verde house."
Lyons obtained a mortgage for the house in March 1996, indicating in records that he was a single man. On the same day, he also signed a quit-claim deed transfering ownership of the house to him and Edwards. Property taxes on the home, which now total $14,085 along with penalties, have not been paid.
"There has never been any money taken from this church or from the national Baptist convention to secure the loan on the house," he said.
In the convention's annual report, $44,000 is budgeted to cover expenses of a national guest house. Several Baptist leaders this week said they had been unaware of the house in Tierra Verde. That is, until Friday when Dr. John Chaplin said he actually had stayed at the house.
Chaplin, who is a vice president of the convention and a 10-year friend of Lyons, had been traveling with the minister and Edwards this week in Nigeria when the news broke in St. Petersburg. The house, he said, was solely a business operation.
It was "not where Ms. Edwards lived -- not by a long-shot," Chaplin said.
Chaplin also is chief operating officer of National African-American Church Council, which markets cemetery plots for $2,000 to $10,000. He said Edwards also serves as the council's executive secretary and has access to the finances, which are controlled by Lyons.
Friday, before strolling into the same church hall where he and his wife last month celebrated their silver wedding anniversary, Lyons steeled himself with the friendship and prayers of longtime friends, said Marvin Davies, a member of the citizens advisory commission appointed to oversee federal assistance to St. Petersburg after last year's disturbances.
"There were prayers for his family and then there was prayer among the ministers for him," Davies said.
Lyons began by reading from a prepared statement, his voice modulated. But as he continued, and as his supporters urged him on, his words finally took on the passion of a defiant sermon. As he turned the pages of his prepared statement, his hands slightly shook.
Though many supporters and the unbashedly curious crowded into the hall with dozens of reporters and photographers, the most formidable show of force was the dark-suited wall of deacons, elders and other Baptist heavyweights who flanked the podium, providing a chorus of "Amens," "Yes sirs" and "There-you-gos" as Lyons spoke.
"I do want to specifically address some of the allegations that have been lodged against me at this time," Lyons said.
Although he commented on the alleged affair and the Tierra Verde house, Lyons did not attempt to answer other pressing questions about his finances and his relationship with Edwards. Such as:
Why he listed himself as single on the mortgage and later added Edwards to the deed.
How he could entrust Edwards with finances after she has been convicted of embezzlement in Wisconsin or why he shares a bank account with Edwards -- an account on which she has been accused of writing checks on insufficient funds.
Why a $135,000 Mercedes S 600 V was purchased earlier this year and registered in the name of Bethel Metropolitan church and Bernice Edwards. By claiming the church exemption, they did not have to pay about $9,000 in taxes. The state Department of Revenue on Friday said it planned to review the sale for possible tax evasion.
Why his newfound wealth coincides with his presidency. Only a few years before, his financial woes had led to leins and a mortgage foreclosure being filed against him.
How he was able to pay $85,000 in restitution after he was investigated for bank fraud in 1991 and was placed in a pretrial diversion program.
To hear what Lyons did say, several law enforcement investigators mixed with reporters during the news conference Friday. The State Attorney's office sent two detectives, as did the sheriff's office, which also had someone videotape the minister's statements.
That was fine with Lyons, said his attorney, Grady Irvin.
"We had nothing to hide," said Irvin, who describes himself as a specialized lawyer who represents athletes such as Terry Allen, Leon Lett and Sterling Sharpe.
"His obligations are to his family, his congregation and the convention," Irvin said. "He took a very unique step -- in my opinion, an unorthodox step -- against the advice of certain people. He wanted to confront this and did so sincerely and honestly."
St. Petersburg Times.
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