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  • Baptist leader suggests leave for Lyons

    and DAVID BARSTOW, Times Staff Writers
    ©St. Petersburg Times, published Aug. 1, 1997

    A leader in the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. said Thursday the Rev. Henry J. Lyons should consider taking a leave of absence from his job as president of the 8.5-million member organization.

    The Rev. A.L. Owens, the convention's second vice president and a member of Lyons' inner circle, said there is a "very good possibility" that Lyons will be asked to step aside at a meeting of convention leaders scheduled in Atlanta on Saturday morning.

    Lyons' attorney said the 55-year-old preacher has no intention of leaving.

    "He does not plan on taking any leave of absence," Grady Irvin said. "He's preparing his convention for its annual meeting, which is going to take place in Denver in approximately four weeks."

    Owens' remarks are the first public indication that Lyons may be losing support among ranking members of the convention's board, most of whom were nominated by Lyons after his election in 1994.

    At the Atlanta meeting, convention leaders will discuss the formation of an "investigative committee" charged with examining financial and personal questions raised about Lyons in recent weeks.

    One new question to surface this week: Whether signatures were faked on a document that guaranteed a $300,000 mortgage for Brenda Harris, a top convention employee who, some neighbors recall, once introduced Lyons as her fiance.

    Lyons, who is married, denies a romantic relationship with Harris.

    Convention leaders also will discuss Lyons' status with the organization, Owens said.

    "I think an option for him would be to consider stepping aside (until questions are resolved)," Owens said. Another option is resignation, he said, adding that he has serious questions about Lyons' conduct.

    "My church members are asking me questions and I don't have the answers," said Owens, pastor of a large parish in Cleveland. "We owe our parishioners -- our everyday people -- answers to their questions."

    Only two weeks ago, in Nashville, Tenn., the board gave a unanimous vote of confidence to Lyons, saying it accepted his explanation about a range of issues -- from his purchase last year of a $700,000 house on Tierra Verde, to his relationship with Bernice Edwards, a convicted embezzler and convention employee with whom he shares ownership of the Tierra Verde home, a checking account and a Rolls-Royce.

    Since then, there have been new revelations -- about Lyons' plans to purchase a $925,000 estate in North Carolina and about the Baptist Builder Fund, a convention checking account Lyons maintains that did not appear in the organization's most recent audit.

    Owens said coverage of the Nashville meeting created the "misimpression" that "every member of the board is naive or dumb or crooked."

    Lyons, he said, didn't come close to providing a satisfactory explanation in Nashville.

    "We are not hoodwinked easily," he said. "We are not just docile rubber-stampers."

    Irvin said Lyons would welcome an internal inquiry. "If any committee has been formed, I'm confident that Dr. Lyons has encouraged it," he said.

    It is not clear who will serve on the committee.

    Owens insisted that Lyons would not have a hand in either selecting its members or determining the scope of its work. That decision, he said, will be made by the convention's executive board. "We're going to organize that this weekend," he said.

    But the Rev. E.V. Hill of Los Angeles said Lyons has asked him to serve as chairman of the special investigative committee. He also said Lyons will propose a list of about 17 other members to the executive board on Saturday. Hill said the list includes supporters as well as opponents. Three proposed members ran against Lyons in his campaign for president.

    "It's very broad-based. It's not a rubber-stamp board," said Hill, adding that the executive board may or may not accept the list proposed by Lyons.

    Hill said he expects the committee to examine every allegation that has been raised about Lyons' personal and financial dealings.

    "We will take every item and look at it and seek an explanation from Dr. Lyons," Hill said. "We will look at the allegations, the sources of the allegations and the answers."

    Owens said the investigation should include an examination of all convention banking records, checkbooks and other financial documents controlled by Lyons. "We have enough sense to know we have to be thorough," Owens said.

    He and several other board members have said they did not know the existence of the Baptist Builder Fund -- a fund Lyons has used frequently to pay for such things as travel expenses, "minor salaries" and a membership to an upscale club in Nashville.

    "If we did not authorize it, then where did the authority come from?" Owens said.

    It was unclear Thursday how many other board members share Owens' doubts about Lyons.

    "In the black church, in the black community, we trust our leaders," said the Rev. John Miles of Kansas City, Mo. "I have no reason not to trust Rev. Lyons."

    The Rev. Carsie Barnes of Chicago was shocked Owens would ask Lyons to consider stepping aside.

    "It's hard for me to believe that this kind of thing is going to come out of his mouth," Barnes said.

    Still others who were invited to Saturday's meeting said they are leery of Lyons' intentions in supporting a special investigation. They think any committee formed now won't be able to accomplish much before the annual meeting of the National Baptist Convention, set for the first week in September.

    "He's only using us to buy time," said the Rev. Jasper Williams of Atlanta, who ran against Lyons for the presidency and is one of the people Lyons proposed to serve on the committee. "There's no way in the world that we can investigate him between now and September. We don't have the tools for that."

    One issue likely to come up in the investigation is a controversial convention resolution from 1996.

    The document pledges the convention's financial help, in the form of "a guarantor, or co-signator toward a loan," to help Brenda Harris buy a home in Nashville. The convention's financial help to Harris, the resolution states, was not to exceed $300,000.

    Questions are being raised about the validity of two signatures that accompany Lyons' on the resolution: those of Dr. A.H. Newman, convention chairman, and Roscoe D. Cooper, general secretary.

    Those signatures appear significantly different from those on another document.

    During a meeting they attended in Nashville July 17, Cooper and Newman signed their names beneath a resolution offering the embattled Lyons "a unanimous vote of confidence." Irvin, Lyons' attorney, said he watched the men sign their names to that document, and even let them use his pen.

    Cooper and Newman did not return phone calls Thursday.

    "I've not discussed any of these matters with Dr. Lyons," Irvin said. "We don't have any comment."

    The 1996 resolution to help Harris with her housing has been called into question before: Some members of the convention say they had never heard of it and didn't recall taking any vote on it at their meeting on Jan. 23, 1996, in Mobile, Ala. They don't think the board ever passed it.

    "Nothing like that was ever brought to the convention," said Jasper Williams, a member of the board until February, when he resigned to protest Lyons. Others, including the Rev. H.P. Rachal of Los Angeles, say they distinctly recall the vote.

    "We discussed it and it was passed," Rachal said Thursday. ". . . We definitely decided to help Ms. Harris with housing at that meeting in Mobile."

    Asked about the board's resolution during an interview with the Times last month, Lyons initially said it did not exist.

    "If you're holding a document with three signatures, it is a fraudulent document," Lyons said. "It is definitely a fraudulent document."

    When shown a copy of the convention resolution, however, Lyons acknowledged that it was real. He said seeing the document refreshed his memory of it.

    During contract negotiations with Harris in 1995, Lyons explained, he agreed in principle to help her with housing costs, if necessary. Then, during the 1996 convention, board members approved that help and named a specific dollar amount, Lyons said.

    People may not have remembered passage of the resolution he said, because the meetings are crowded and lengthy, and board members walk in and out.

    "The board meeting was held in a convention center," Lyons said. "We are not talking about a board room."

    In any case, Lyons said, Harris never used the board's offer.

    In May 1996, Harris bought a two-story brick house near Nashville. She paid $340,000 for it, with $102,000 cash and a $238,000 mortgage. Lyons said Harris did not require financial assistance.

    Lyons' opponents question whether an internal convention investigation can be trusted. Especially, they say, when it is carried out by people who owe their positions in the organization to Lyons.

    Owens said those concerns are unfounded.

    "We have integrity," he said. "My loyalty goes a long ways, but it stops short of what isn't right."

    And then: "We can be as ruthless as anyone when it comes to our own internal security." 

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