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Churches received only 25% of money

By DAVID BARSTOW and MONICA DAVEY

©St. Petersburg Times, published September 13, 1997


Less than a quarter of $244,500 in donations entrusted to the Rev. Henry J. Lyons to rebuild burned churches in the South actually went to that purpose, his attorney said Friday.

It remains unclear what happened to the rest of that money -- $189,500.

The attorney, Grady Irvin, declined in an interview Friday to explain how the missing donations were used. He would only say that none of the money was spent "inappropriately." He also declined to explain why the $189,500 was withheld from churches desperate for reconstruction funds.

"Was it requested?" he asked. "Was it requested? Do you know?"

Irvin addressed the missing money in a letter Friday to the group that raised the money, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith in New York City. In the letter, Irvin downplayed the dispute, calling the money in question a "de minimus (but yet important) sum" compared to millions raised around the country.

The description outraged officials at the Anti-Defamation League, which raised the money from thousands of Americans who wanted to take a stand against the bigotry that led to some of the fires.

"These people were responding from their hearts," League spokeswoman Myrna Shinbaum said. "If (Lyons) thought that was such a small amount, I'm not sure why he flew to New York and brought three ministers to accept the money" at a formal ceremony.

As Florida prosecutors began an inquiry into the missing money, Irvin on Friday embarked on a day of damage control. His office faxed copies of the letter to the Anti-Defamation League and 10 news organizations. League officials, however, said they had not received the letter Friday evening.

In the letter, Irvin said the money in question is safe. Officials from the National Baptist Convention USA, of which Lyons is president, have delivered $189,500 to Irvin's escrow account.

"In light of the concerns expressed . . . Dr. Lyons thought it appropriate this money be removed from the possession of the NBC or any of its officers."

Irvin gave the Anti-Defamation League two choices: It can have the money back, or it can leave the money with Lyons to distribute to churches that provide a "certified invoice outlining the reconstruction and replacement costs they have incurred in re-establishing their respective church."

Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the choice is easy. He wants the money back.

"Every dollar should be used to its utmost," Foxman said, adding that the League will conduct a survey to see which of the burned churches didn't receive the money they were promised.

Ten months ago, Lyons accepted $225,000 from the Anti-Defamation League, which raised the money from thousands of donors. Months later, the League gave Lyons another $19,500. The League, which fights discrimination, sought out Lyons as head of the nation's largest black church organization to distribute money to black churches.

Within weeks, a thank-you letter bearing Lyons' signature was sent to the League, describing how the money had been spent.

"I have spent a great deal of time in travel and phone conversation working with seven (7) churches in the state of Alabama that were burned by arson," the letter states. "To this date six (6) churches have been given $35,000.00 each to aid and assist them in restoring their buildings and furniture and worship materials."

However, officials at all six of the churches named in the letter said they never got $35,000. Three churches said they got $10,000. One church said it received $1,000. Two others said they got nothing. A seventh church says it received $25,000.

In interviews earlier this week, Irvin said the thank-you note was sent in error. He described it as a "draft outline" of how Lyons intended to distribute the money. As for Lyons' signature on the letter, that came from a signature stamp, Irvin said.

Foxman said he was "not impressed" by Irvin's comments. "I don't know what those explanations mean," Foxman said. "The (Lyons) letter is very clear, very specific."

Since the letter was sent, at least four of the churches have been rebuilt and reopened. Most cost more than $100,000 to fix. A few are still under construction.

Irvin's letter said $55,000 of the donations entrusted to Lyons did, in fact, go to the rebuilding effort. None of the money, he has said, was spent on personal items.

League officials, however, say they expect an accounting of all the money they gave Lyons.

In an interview, Irvin disputed a news account that quoted him saying some donations were spent for "emergency situations" at black colleges supported by the convention. Irvin said he was misquoted.

Irvin has said Lyons has broad authority over how to spend convention funds. But Foxman, the League's director, said Lyons had no such discretion when it came to the League's donations.

"The fact is, the commitment was made (by Lyons) to do charitable work that was for a specific purpose," Foxman said.

Irvin sought an immediate meeting with Foxman to discuss the money. His request was rejected. "There's no reason for that," Foxman explained. "The attorney promised a full accounting. I hope it'll be arriving soon. We will verify it."

While Foxman did not talk with Irvin, he did take a phone call from the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, which has been investigating Lyons' use of convention funds.
-- Times staff writer Craig Pittman and researcher Carolyn Hardnett contributed to this report.


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