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Baptist official says signature is fake

By ADAM C. SMITH, MONICA DAVEY and DAVID BARSTOW

©St. Petersburg Times, published September 26, 1997


ST. PETERSBURG -- Another document has been added to the list of forgeries linked to Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons.

The Rev. Roscoe D. Cooper, general secretary of the National Baptist Convention USA, said Thursday his signature was falsified on a letter designed to secure public financing for a housing project initiated by Lyons.

Cooper, of Richmond, Va., said he never signed the letter, which pledged $750,000 in convention money toward the Lyons project.

"No, I did not" sign it, Cooper said.

The purpose of the letter was to persuade government housing officials of the project's financial strength by showing it had backing from the nation's largest black church group.

But Cooper, the convention's second in command, said he knew nothing of Lyons' plans to build an assisted living facility.

"I did not," he said.

The letter marks the fourth time Cooper's name has been forged on a convention document.

All four documents are related to various financial deals involving Lyons, the St. Petersburg minister who became president of the convention in 1994.

Each of the documents was intended to win financing from lending agencies. Each of the documents carries a Cooper signature to show that the transaction had the blessing of the National Baptist Convention. At least two of those transactions enriched Lyons' personally. One involved a convention employee who has been romantically linked to Lyons.

Who is forging Cooper's signature?

Cooper said he does not know.

"Dr. Lyons has said that is not something he has done," he said.

Asked if he is concerned about the forgeries, Cooper stressed that the National Baptist Convention has forgiven Lyons for any mistakes he has made.

"We forgave Doc," Cooper said.

Lyons could not be reached for comment. Grady Irvin, an attorney for Lyons, said he did not know who signed the letter.

"It was not signed by Dr. Lyons," he said.

"I wish the St. Pete Times would have the courage to just outright accuse him of forgery, instead of trying to imply it," Irvin said. "The reason I don't think you'll do that is because I don't think you're very confident that he did this. You just want to sell newspapers."

It is not clear what role, if any, Lyons played in the drafting of the letter. Dated Feb. 11, 1997, the letter is addressed to Lyons. The letter was written on Lyons' convention letterhead, though Cooper has his own convention letterhead.

Lyons has faced criminal prosecution before for transactions involving phony documents.

The case stemmed from a 1988 bank loan to the Florida General Baptist Convention, of which Lyons was president at the time. Lyons secured the $85,000 loan with three "share certificates" from a credit union he helped found.

The certificates were counterfeit.

In 1991, Lyons entered a pretrial intervention program and paid $85,000 in restitution, thus avoiding a federal charge of bank fraud.

Plans call for the 84-bed assisted living facility to be built next to Lyons' church, Bethel Metropolitan.

It is to be called Bethel Village.

The deal involves aid from three government agencies: The city of St. Petersburg gave a Lyons company $300,000 to buy the land; Pinellas County is being asked to issue tax-exempt bonds for construction; the federal department of Housing and Urban Development is being asked to insure the bonds.

HUD officials have been slow to approve the deal, so much so that Lyons' partners approached the city last week for help. They wanted Mayor David Fischer to encourage HUD to approve the financing package. It was then that city officials began raising questions about the authenticity of the Cooper letter.

City leaders reacted nervously Thursday when told Cooper had confirmed their fears of forgery.

"Wow," Neighborhood Services administrator Mike Dove said. "It's a major legal matter now. We'll have to step back and see what we need to do to protect ourselves."

Fischer, criticized for the grant because he recommended it over staff concerns about the project's feasibility, said he won't give any more help.

"They're on their own now," he said. "It's got to stand on its own merits."

Under the terms of the $300,000 grant, the city can foreclose on the property if construction doesn't begin by year end.

Also on Thursday, HUD called in the department's inspector general.

"We have asked the inspector general to please look at the allegation," said spokesman Alex Sachs. "The inspector general will then make a recommendation to the department about what to do."

The growing number of forgeries is drawing interest from investigators digging into Lyons financial dealings since he became convention president in 1994.

It's illegal to knowingly give a false document to a federal agency.

United States Code makes it a crime, punishable by five years in prison.

A formal federal prosecutor, Bill Jung, said the charge is relatively common and straightforward. If someone supplies a federal official with a signed document, knowing that the signature is forged, that could qualify, he said.

"If you lie to a federal official, even if it's not under oath, it's a crime," Jung said. "It's not required that the federal agency rely on the statement. Just that you made it."

Lyons is the target of criminal investigations by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa and Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe.

It is unclear what actions federal investigators have taken.

Several of Lyons' current and former employees, however, say they have been subpoenaed by McCabe and questioned at great length by his investigators. McCabe also has subpoenaed thousands of pages of Lyons' and convention bank records.

McCabe confirmed Thursday that his office is examining the Cooper forgeries.

"We're looking at all of it to see if we can identify violations of state law," he said.

But while investigators have questions about the forgeries, convention officials do not.

Cooper, for one, said he is not upset by the forged housing project letter. The letter, he said, has been withdrawn from the deal, which means the convention is no longer liable for $750,000 in financial assistance.

"It's a non-factor," he said.

More important for the convention, he said, is to move forward with the fiscal reforms promised at the convention's annual meeting in Denver earlier this month. Lyons survived efforts to oust him in part by promising tighter controls over convention finances.

The reforms began Wednesday, Cooper said, with the first meeting of the convention's new financial oversight committee. The committee, which is to meet monthly, consists of Lyons, Cooper, the convention treasurer and the convention's budget chairman.

The committee met at the World Center, the convention's headquarters in Nashville. It appointed Walter Cade, the World Center's executive director, to take over from Lyons the day-to-day financial operations of the convention. The convention's accounts are being moved from St. Petersburg to Nashville, Cooper said. Two signatures will be required on every check.

Lyons will, however, retain control of a "discretionary account" in St. Petersburg, Cooper said. And he alone will sign checks from that account, which will be audited, Cooper said.


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