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Council orders audit into Lyons ties

By ADAM C. SMITH

©St. Petersburg Times, published October 1, 1997


ST. PETERSBURG -- City Council members have ordered an independent audit into the city's financial ties to the Rev. Henry J. Lyons.

Their decision, at a specially called committee meeting Tuesday, came in the wake of a Times report last week that a forged document was included in an application for public financing of a Lyons-initiated housing project in St. Petersburg.

The city gave the non-profit corporation founded by Lyons $300,000 to buy land for the development last December, though the forged document did not figure in that decision.

"We have an obligation, whether that's state, federal or city money, to stay on top of these things," council member Larry Williams said.

Williams called the special meeting in response to the forgery involved in Lyons' planned Bethel Village senior housing project.

But the meeting quickly turned into a wide-ranging attack on the administration of Mayor David Fischer, as council members jumped on everything from improper or illegal permitting by city regulators to the need for a detailed, independent study of the city's management.

"If the council does nothing except receive reports, where does the buck stop when something is mismanaged?" council member Bea Griswold asked.

Precisely what is to be determined in the audit of Lyons' financial ties to the city is unclear, other than added security for nervous council members. Federal investigators also have reviewed city records involving Lyons.

St. Petersburg has issued several grants and loans to organizations involving Lyons, with the 84-bed Bethel Village project the biggest recent one in the last year. The Bethel Village grant came at the recommendation of Fischer, despite concerns about the project's feasibility by city staff.

If work is not under way by year's end, the city may foreclose on the property, which abuts Lyons' church, Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church.

"I feel pretty comfortable at this point that we're safe and secure with all our dealings with Rev. Lyons," internal auditor Steve Smith told council members. "We have found no instance where city dollars were abused or otherwise used improperly."

Every council member but Frank Peterman has voiced strong concerns about the city's continuing business ties to Lyons, who is the target of state and federal criminal investigations. Peterman did not attend the meeting Tuesday, but after learning of the forgery last week, he said he "would need more facts" before having qualms about the city doing business with Lyons.

The forgery involved a Feb. 11, 1997, letter from the National Baptist Convention pledging up to $750,000 toward Bethel Village. It was included in an application to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for roughly $5-million in mortgage insurance. It was purportedly signed by the Rev. Roscoe Cooper, general secretary of the convention, though Cooper said last week he did not sign it and knew nothing about it.

Council members said they wanted to thoroughly review the city's policies and procedures for issuing grants and examine how carefully proposals are screened.

Fischer was not present for the committee meeting Tuesday as his administration was battered on several fronts. Several council members bemoaned how little they can do when they see problems in the city, given apparent restrictions under the city charter.

Even publicly accusing the mayor of mismanaging something accomplishes little, Williams said: "We get in trouble for wearing the wrong hat at the wrong time and in essence it gets covered up."

Council member Kathleen Ford was "very gravely concerned" about about an internal audit that found city regulators were bypassing state laws and city policies to expedite development permits.

She suggested the council order another audit on that issue, but agreed to hold off until the head of the department brings in his own independent reviewer.


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