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The Rev. Henry Lyons

 

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I have sinned

By MIKE WILSON, CRAIG PITTMAN,
MONICA DAVEY and DAVID BARSTOW

©St. Petersburg Times, published December 4, 1997


ST. PETERSBURG -- With his wife, a daughter and attorneys at his side, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons apologized Wednesday for yielding to the temptations of the good life and acknowledged that he may soon pay a price in criminal court.

"I am ready to face whatever charges that I need to face or should face," he said in a news conference broadcast live on television. "I am a preacher who made some serious errors in judgment, and what be my lot will be my lot."

But there were limits to Lyons' contrition. He did not resign as pastor of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church or as president of the National Baptist Convention USA, as some speculated he would.

Instead, he used the media event to portray himself as a "simple preacher" gone momentarily astray -- a humble man of faith who might have broken the law but didn't mean to.

His wife, Deborah, stood next to him during the 25-minute statement at the church, her eyes glued on her husband, whispering amens.

"I am no monster. I am no devil. I am a man. And despite whatever you may write, I am still a child of God," Lyons said. He did not take questions.

Lyons' statement included some revelations.

He said he has filed amended income tax returns "without any request or notification from the federal government."

Denis de Vlaming, a member of Lyons' legal defense team, said Lyons filed the amended 1994 and 1995 returns two months ago -- several weeks after he first came under scrutiny for his financial dealings.

Lyons expressed regret for saying in July that his troubles were the result of racism -- a remark he was widely criticized for at the time.

"I was wrong to imply or even to suggest that everyone was out to get Henry Lyons simply because he was black," he said.

He softened his earlier denials that he had inappropriate relationships with women who worked for the convention.

"I have expressed my deepest apology to them for any instance in which I may have allowed myself to shirk any responsibilities I owed to my wife and to my children," Lyons said. "I have also expressed my apology for any event, whatsoever, in which I may have failed to make certain that I would not subject myself to human frailties."

And he apologized -- in a qualified way -- for using his position as convention president to make lucrative deals with big corporations. The deals were worth more than $1-million to Lyons and his associates.

"Despite how entitled I may feel I was to the fees or gifts I received from corporate deals, I should never have allowed this to change my simple way of life," he said.

The reaction ran the gamut. Barbara Burrell, the head of Bethel Metropolitan's prayer ministry, said after the news conference, "My heart is full.

"I see God working. I love my pastor. I dearly support him," she said.

The Rev. Calvin Butts of New York said the news conference "was just part of a game that's being played with the hard-earned money of black people and the reputation of black denominations."

"Lyons is holding on to the National Baptist Convention to have an organization pay his legal fees," Butts said.

Lyons staged the event at Bethel's Fellowship Hall, the same room where he held a news conference in July, days after his wife set fire to a waterfront house he owns with former convention employee and convicted embezzler Bernice V. Edwards.

Since then, Lyons has faced allegations of mishandling convention finances, benefiting personally from lucrative deals with corporations, leading a lavish lifestyle and lobbying on behalf of the military regime in Nigeria. State and federal authorities are investigating.

Lyons entered the hall 45 minutes after the scheduled time, dressed, like his wife and daughter, in black. Behind him, a dozen church elders and friends stood.

In the statement he often reflected on his modest past: growing up with his grandparents, helping to build a Gainesville church in the hot sun as a teen, meeting his young wife in the Midwest.

The mood of the event was in stark contrast to the July news conference. Then, Lyons spoke quickly and angrily, receiving a constant chorus of loud amens from a roomful of supporters.

On Wednesday, Lyons was somber as he made his way through his eight-page typewritten speech, handing each page to his daughter, Vonda, when he finished reading it. The crowd was much smaller this time, the amens much less frequent. About 20 members of his church sat in the audience, surrounded by reporters and cameras.

Two investigators from the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office also attended. They said they wanted to hear what Lyons had to say. Pinellas State Attorney Bernie McCabe and Tampa U.S. Attorney Charles Wilson could not be reached for comment on the progress of their investigations.

De Vlaming, Lyons' attorney, said he did not expect federal investigators to complete their investigation before year's end. He predicted the state investigation would be finished first.

Why would Lyons hold a news conference now? "It was his choice," de Vlaming said. He said Lyons approached his defense team -- which also includes lawyers Anthony Battaglia and Grady Irvin -- and said he "he wanted to make this statement to the community."

A Tampa jury consultant offered an explanation for the timing.

"You would usually expect something like this on the eve of a big organizational event like a church meeting or in anticipation that one might soon be indicted," said Harvey Moore, president of Trial Practices.

Moore said Lyons' address was aimed at two audiences: his fellow church members and the jury pool for any criminal trials he might face.

Because all the local television stations carried the speech live, Moore said, "It assures he speaks to the entire Middle District of Florida," from Brooksville to Bradenton, the area from which Tampa's federal juries are pulled.

Lyons began by saying he had never forgotten about his first two wives, even though one newspaper quoted him as saying he had. When he wed Deborah, his third wife, in 1972, he said on his marriage license that he had never been married before.

"As I promised Deborah 20-some-odd years ago, I put those marriages behind me and focused on my future with her," he explained.

He addressed his former wives, saying, "I apologize to you for any embarrassment or pain I have caused."

Lyons married his first wife, Patricia Lucile Demons, in 1966. According to court records, she left him in 1968 after he beat her. Lyons married Camilla Smith in 1969 and divorced her three years later. Two months after the divorce, he married Deborah Manuel, now Deborah Lyons.

Lyons said he wished Deborah Lyons' troubles with alcohol had remained private. She described them in court in October when she pleaded guilty to setting fire to the waterfront house.

"I wish that I could have somehow done more," Lyons said of his wife's struggle with alcoholism. "I am pleased today that through the grace of God, we as a family have embraced one another and we're moving on."

To that, Deborah Lyons called out: Amen, Amen, Amen.

Lyons on Wednesday softened his earlier, angry denials that he had romantic relationships with two convention employees. But he stopped short of acknowledging those relationships, saying only that "the dignity of women, the dignity of wives and the dignity of children should always be the greatest priority of any man and of any father."

Lyons also spoke of corporations that paid him hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote their products and services to African-Americans.

"I recognize that I essentially bared my soul to corporations with a lot of money," he said. Even though the convention bylaws did not prohibit this, he said, "I should nevertheless have . . . stated that my endorsement was not for sale."

Lyons spoke of the difficulty of merging his life as a "modest-income preacher" with that of an entrepreneur.

"It eventually came clear that these contrasting lifestyles could very well amount to a change in me," he said.

Still, he was not entirely remorseful about having made the corporate deals. He said at one point that he felt entitled to the money, and at another called his actions "legitimate." Lyons said he made the deals partly to secure "a better lifestyle for my children than the simple lifestyle I enjoyed as a child."

Lyons gave a detailed apology for mentioning race at his July news conference.

"What are you trying to imply?" he said then. "That blacks in this country cannot be successful and live well? I have never yet met many that understood that you can have a little money in this country and not push or sell drugs."

On Wednesday he said, "As a person of Christian faith it was my duty to not lean on perceived racial unfairness, but instead to admit that blacks, just as whites, are not immune from temptations."

His meaning was less clear when he spoke of his role in rebuilding burned-out black churches in the South. In 1996, the Anti-Defamation League asked Lyons to distribute $244,500 to churches that had been damaged by fire, some by arson. Letters to the ADL bearing Lyons' name stated that he did so.

But in September, he acknowledged he distributed only $30,000 and withheld the rest because, he said, the churches didn't need the money. Lyons has since refunded $214,500 to ADL.

Lyons seemed to say Wednesday that he used some of the ADL money to pay convention bills, which he said were piling up at the time.

"I was faced with a very difficult dilemma. The convention had some significant debts or financial obligations. . . . I found out all too late and all too often (that) those bills I inherited were unpaid," he said.

Even though Lyons repaid the money, he said he "must accept the responsibility if I have as president of the convention fell short in this effort to help in the churches project."

Lyons closed by saying, "May God bless you and keep you. Thank you." Then attorney Irvin stepped forward and said, "Nothing that was said today is an admission of any criminal wrongdoing."

Around the country, Lyons' supporters in the convention lauded his intention to remain president, come what may.

"My honest opinion is that he has made the correct decision," said the Rev. John D. Chaplin, the convention's first vice president.

Chaplin blamed the St. Petersburg Times' coverage of Lyons for his troubles. "You want to kill him. We love Dr. Lyons."

Lyons' opponents described the news conference as a way to speak out before prosecutors have their say. "He's trying to soften the blow when he gets indicted," said the Rev. J.J. Barfield, a Philadelphia minister who has opposed Lyons.

The convention's most recent constitution does not address what would happen to the presidency if Lyons were charged with a crime. Convention leaders say Lyons would stay put. Lyons, 55, was elected to a five-year term in 1994 on a platform of financial reform.

Lyons' detractors say they intend to seek his ouster in January, when the convention board holds a mid-winter meeting in Los Angeles. They failed in a similar attempt in September at a meeting of the entire convention.

"We're going to do what we can do," said the Rev. Jasper Williams of Atlanta. "We can at least raise hell."

At Lyons' church, deacons said they were glad to hear Lyons plans to continue as their leader.

"He has apologized to the public," deacon Rudolph Smith said. "He has apologized to the church. I don't see any other reason for him to apologize any more than he already has."

If Lyons is charged with a crime, Smith said the church will stand by him.

"We don't know anything about charges. . . . We follow what the Bible says. We have to forgive. No man is an island in himself. Everybody makes mistakes."
-- Times staff writer Waveney Ann Moore contributed to this report.


©Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.