The Rev. Henry Lyons
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Lyons grand jury focusing on forgeries
By DAVID BARSTOW and MONICA DAVEY
©St. Petersburg Times, published January 9, 2006
TAMPA -- Testimony before a federal grand jury Thursday focused on a string of forged National Baptist Convention USA Inc. documents used in financial deals involving the Rev. Henry J. Lyons.
The forgeries, four in all, have emerged as a focal point of the grand jury, which last year began investigating the Baptist leader's handling of convention finances. State prosecutors are completing a separate investigation into Lyons' activities.
Two witnesses -- a convention official and a deacon at Lyons' St. Petersburg church -- were asked to explain Thursday how the documents, purportedly approved by the Baptist group Lyons leads, got signed.
In all, four documents carry the signature of convention general secretary Roscoe Cooper, though Cooper says he never signed them.
Deacon Ashby Hobson, who helped plan a facility for elderly residents beside Lyons' church, said prosecutors asked him who signed a letter pledging up to $750,000 from the convention as part of an application for federal financial backing for the facility.
"I told them I don't know," Hobson said, after testifying before the grand jury for more than an hour Thursday afternoon. "I told them that, 29 different ways. I did not sign the thing."
"The letter was the focus," Hobson said.
Federal law makes it a crime to knowingly give a false document to a federal agency. Falsifying a document to obtain a bank loan also can be a crime under state and federal laws.
The Rev. Richard P. Bifford, the convention's recording secretary from Pine Bluff, Ark., was asked about another forged document Thursday, he said.
Prosecutors wanted to know what Bifford -- as official recorder of votes for the organization -- recalled about a resolution guaranteeing a $300,000 home loan from the convention for Brenda Harris, a convention employee who has been romantically linked to Lyons.
The Jan. 23, 1996, resolution carried Cooper's name, though Cooper says the signature was phony and some convention members did not recall voting on the matter.
"I said I knew nothing about (who signed) it," Bifford said after testifying before the grand jury. Bifford said he did not recall a vote on the Harris loan, but said he recalled discussion of the issue.
Bifford said he also was asked about the Baptist Builder Fund, Lyons' secret bank account.
"I knew nothing about it," Bifford said. "I said I knew nothing about it several times" during an hour and 40 minutes of testimony.
The grand jury called him, Bifford said, to find out whether any convention records indicate that Lyons misspent money. He turned over minutes of the group's meeting last fall in Denver, he said.
"We just don't have anything on record to say he has misappropriated funds," Bifford said.
In September, a convention investigative committee abruptly ended a cursory inquiry into Lyons' dealings, saying it was time to forgive and move forward.
Bifford said the convention is satisfied with Lyons' explanations of financial questions. A strong Lyons supporter, Bifford accused the media, prosecutors and Lyons' opponents within the convention of keeping scrutiny of Lyons alive. Without a grand jury subpoena, Bifford said, he "wouldn't be here."
Two other witnesses were subpoenaed to testify, but were not called before the jury. They were expected to testify in the coming months. Norman Powe, a 71-year-old Seminole resident, is an accountant who worked on Lyons' taxes one year, he said. The other, Renee Fagans, 45, of San Diego, was a former assistant to Harris.
In 1995, Lyons recruited and hired Harris to take charge of all hotel and travel arrangements connected to the convention's many meetings, including its annual session, which draws more that 20,000 members to the host city.
In her job, Harris generates hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue for the convention by securing rebates from hotels and local convention bureaus. According to her neighbors in Nashville, Harris introduced Lyons as her fiancee during a social event they hosted at her house. Lyons and Harris have denied any romance.
Fagans was flown in Wednesday night from California, where she said she works as a writer and where she originally met Harris, who worked for the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau before joining the convention. Fagans did not appear before the grand jury, but was interviewed by federal authorities for several hours.
She said authorities asked her a broad range of questions, from her knowledge about Lyons' relationship with Harris to details of how Harris and Lyons handled rebate money.
"There's lots of areas to be explored in terms of Lyon's credibility and financial activities," said Fagans, who left her convention job in April 1996.
©Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.