The Rev. Henry Lyons
Got a news tip?
Church checks got cashed
Times photo by BRIAN BAER
A letter bearing Rev. Henry J. Lyons' signature let a woman use a cashing service for National Baptist Convention payments. But the pastor's attorney says the letter is a fraud. America's Cash Express is in the Webb Plaza shopping center in St. Petersburg.
By TIM ROCHE, SUE LANDRY and MONICA DAVEY
©St. Petersburg Times, published July 17, 1997
ST. PETERSBURG -- A woman claiming to be a secretary for the Rev. Henry J. Lyons was a familiar figure at America's Cash Express in Webb Plaza.
Every couple of days, she would show up with checks that churches had sent in from around the country to the National Baptist Convention USA and its fund-raising campaigns.
With a letter of permission bearing Lyons' signature, she would convert the donations to cash.
In doing so, as much as 10 percent of the value of the checks became fees paid to the store instead of being used, as intended, for convention business.
"I see her once every other day," said Loree Norfleet, who works at the store in Webb Plaza. "It was mostly from churches -- any church, anywhere."
Lyons, through his attorney on Wednesday, denied signing a letter authorizing his secretary to cash the checks.
"He was shocked," attorney Grady Irvin said from Philadelphia. "Dr. Lyons has no knowledge of this." He said Lyons will take the matter to the convention's board of directors today in Nashville and ask for an investigation.
The check-cashing has drawn the attention of local and federal law enforcement investigators. It is the latest in a series of revelations involving Lyons' personal finances after his wife, Deborah, was arrested last week and accused of setting fire to the $700,000 house that her husband owns with another woman in Tierra Verde.
In addition to an arson investigation by Pinellas sheriff's detectives, the FBI has begun a preliminary inquiry into Lyons' dealings. Both the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa declined comment Wednesday.
In the face of continuing criticism about the convention's finances, Lyons this week showed the Times an independent audit as proof that the convention accounts for every penny.
But the audit also raises questions about the convention's accounting practices.
Since becoming president of the nation's largest black church organization, Lyons has seen his personal assets expand to include the house in Tierra Verde, a 1987 Rolls-Royce and a $135,000 Mercedes-Benz. In addition to the house, the two luxury cars also are registered in the name of Bernice V. Edwards, a convicted embezzler from Milwaukee.
The source of his new-found affluence is unclear, a matter that became even more muddled Wednesday with the discovery that checks written to the convention were converted to cash at a St. Petersburg check-cashing store.
The store, America's Cash Express, has a letter on file, bearing Lyons' signature, that authorizes his secretary, Sheila J. Perry, to cash the checks. A photocopy of her driver's license is attached to the letter.
Norfleet, cashier of the Webb Plaza store, said Wednesday that she has been cashing the checks for the three months she has worked there. It was a practice even before she was hired, she said. The secretary would bring in two to three checks at a time, she said. The amounts would vary. Sometimes, $50, sometimes, $500. The store is not allowed to cash checks for more than $500, Norfleet said.
Norfleet said she was "not really" suspicious.
"I was doing what the manager told me to do," she said. "I had heard about the convention. . . . It seemed believable because the checks were from churches."
The letter bearing Lyons' signature says Perry "is authorized to cash monetary tenders" for the convention. It specifically names six of the convention's leading fund-raising programs, including one called the Unified Program, which provides insurance and other benefits to pastors, and another designed to raise money by selling "memorial plaques" to be posted on a wall or a walkway at the convention's national headquarters in Nashville.
Cynthia Ray, the women's auxiliary president who came up with the idea for the Freedom Wall and Walk of Faith, hung up the telephone when asked about the improperly cashed checks Thursday.
"I don't want to hear it," she said. "Anything I want to do know, I'll find out in Nashville."
The letter also authorized the secretary to cash checks sent to the Armies of God program, which was established by Lyons as a way to receive donations to alleviate the convention's debt on its international headquarters. Under the program, ministers were assigned to find churches to send in as much as $10,000.
The Rev. Jasper Williams, the Atlanta minister who was in charge of one of the Armies, said he was able to raise $300,000 in two years by collecting small donations from church members.
He said he was disappointed to hear that the checks may not have reached the convention's bank accounts.
"That's what hurts me so. These people trusted me," said Williams, who is considered a possible successor to Lyons if he were to be replaced as president. "It's hard for me to stand at the pulpit on Sunday morning and face my people."
Perry, 47, did not return messages seeking comment Wednesday.
Irvin, Lyons' attorney, emphatically denied that Lyons has ever mishandled convention funds.
"Dr. Lyons has not done anything improper, nor has any member of the Bethel Church, nor of the convention. . . ."
The convention does not use such check-cashing services, Irvin said.
"Dr. Lyons would not endorse any banking practice which was not known to the board of directors of the Baptist Convention. Dr. Lyons would not endorse any practice such as the utilization of American Cash Express without full knowledge of the Baptist Convention's board of directors."
Asked where the letter might have come from, Irvin would only say: "I would suggest that the Times try and obtain the original of that letter. Just get the original. You'll get your answers." On Tuesday, Lyons said that the convention watches its money carefully and that its financial practices are reviewed annually by the Nashville accounting firm of Marlin and Edmondson.
"We have turned over the books to the auditor hook, line and sinker," Lyons said in an interview Tuesday. "What I'm saying is, what we have, we spend well."
The 1996 audit, though, tells little about the operations of the Office of President and Treasurer, one of 11 offices, boards, affiliates and auxiliaries. The auditing firm states it cannot issue an opinion on the accuracy of financial records kept by that office.
"Due to a lack of complete accounting records these financial statements may not accurately reflect the results of operations of the Office of the President and Treasurer for the 11 months ended May 31, 1996," the audit states.
The Office of President and Treasurer handled about $2-million in revenues, according to the accounting report, which represents about 17 percent of the more than $12-million in revenues reported.
"You could probably take this part and flush it," said Wayne "Skipp" Fraser, a St. Petersburg accountant who agreed to review the audit for the Times. "It's gifts. It's not like they were selling widgets here. It's someone's money that was contributed to them yet they're saying there are not complete accounting records."
The convention's auditing firm also was unable to confirm the existence of nearly $1.5-million in investments the convention said it has in missions in seven other countries.
Fraser said the audit was unusual in other ways, too, especially for an organization the size of the National Baptist Convention, the nation's largest African-American church group, representing 8.5-million Baptists.
Usually, an audit of this type would analyze the entire organization as a compilation of the financial statements of all sections, Fraser said. The Marlin and Edmondson document includes only an overall balance sheet listing assets and liabilities of the 11 boards, affiliates and auxiliaries.
"That's most unusual," Fraser said.
In addition, Marlin and Edmondson report that accounts for several of the affiliates and boards are kept on a cash basis. Fraser said the cash basis of accounting normally is used for very small organizations and does not account for money owed to the organization or by the organization.
Also unusual is the lack of detail in the report, Fraser said. Revenues and expenditures are broken down into a few general categories only.
"I don't think it's a normal level of detail," Fraser said. "They have combined not only expenditures, but they have combined repayment of debt. They have not broken out major categories, such as education, but that could be a result of incomplete records."
©Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.