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  • Lyons tells his side in interview

    By DAVID BARSTOW, STEPHEN NOHLGREN
    and MONICA DAVEY, Times Staff Writers
    ©St. Petersburg Times, published August 20, 1997


    ST. PETERSBURG -- In his first extensive interview since reports of financial and personal turmoil, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons told the Florida Sentinel Bulletin his words and actions have been unfairly spun and slanted.

    "With hindsight I realize some of the decisions I made were errors," he told the Sentinel Bulletin. "I should have said "no' when I said "yes.' I have admitted to the board that I made some errors trying to help out a friend. But I was never a diamond wearing, woman chasing pimp."

    In the wide-ranging interview at his church in St. Petersburg last Friday, the president of the largest black Baptist church group answered questions about money spent on diamonds, luxury homes and city clubs.

    He discussed his future with the National Baptist Convention USA and described the heavy stress he has felt since the questions began.

    His wife, he told the newspaper, has handled the stress with great strength.

    "My wife seems to be the stronger one through all this, and it often seems she is holding me up," he said, according to the Sentinel Bulletin.

    The controversy began last month after Deborah Lyons set fire to a Tierra Verde house Lyons owns with Bernice Edwards, whom he hired as public relations director for the National Baptist Convention.

    In an interview with the Sentinel Bulletin, a statewide African-American newspaper based in Tampa, Lyons:

    • Answered questions about the Baptist Builder Fund, the convention account from which Lyons has withdrawn more than $100,000 to buy jewelry, club memberships and a waterfront Tierra Verde home.

    • Described some of his financial dealings with Edwards and how he came to hire a convicted embezzler from Milwaukee for a senior position in the convention. Lyons said he asked two Wisconsin pastors about Edwards. "Both gave her a clean bill of health," he told the newspaper.

    • Discussed his two previous marriages, neither of which is listed on the marriage certificate to his current wife. He also addressed questions about two women who said he fathered their children.

    • Said he is considering legal action against the St. Petersburg Times, which he accused of having a "personal vendetta against me." He said he has lost speaking engagements and contracts because of more than "100 articles" in the Times. "I have suffered emotionally and financially."

    • Discussed his future in the National Baptist Convention USA, saying he has not considered resigning from the post he has held since 1994.

    • Lyons told the Sentinel-Bulletin that the Baptist Builder Fund "was never a secret."

    A half-dozen National Baptist Convention officials have said they have never heard of the Baptist Builder Fund, and it does not appear in the convention's most recent audit or annual report.

    Lyons said auditors have been given records of the account, which he said was used "to transact day-to-day financial business" of the convention, according to the newspaper. "Although it was never officially declared as a discretionary account, there was no harm intended and no harm done," he told the newspaper.

    The newspaper asked Lyons about Brenda Harris, a senior convention employee who has introduced Lyons to neighbors in Nashville, Tenn., as her fiancee. Lyons, who denies any romantic link with Harris, wrote a $1,000 check off the Baptist Builder Fund to pay two $500 initiation fees for himself and Harris to join an exclusive club in Nashville. He also committed the convention to guarantee up to a $300,000 mortgage on her home.

    In the interview, Lyons said Harris was treated the same as two other senior-level employees he hired for the convention.

    "We try to give them whatever perks we can -- cars, housing, etc.," he told the newspaper. Harris and the other two employees were offered memberships to the club "because it was for church business." He did not say whether the other two employees accepted the memberships.

    Lyons was not asked why he withdrew $90,000 from the Baptist Builder Fund to help make a down payment on the $700,000 Tierra Verde home he owns with Edwards. Lyons described the purchase as a "business transaction" with Edwards.

    In obtaining the mortgage, Lyons' marital status was changed on a document to say he was single. Lyons said he did not know how that happened. "Every change that was made had my initials by the change except for that one," he told the newspaper.

    Lyons did, however, give a detailed explanation about why he wrote a $10,000 check from the Baptist Builder Fund to help buy a diamond ring for Edwards.

    According to Lyons, Edwards gave him two checks in December 1996 "totaling $50,000" to hold on her behalf. Lyons said he deposited that money into the Baptist Builder Fund. "I admit that I should not have put the money into that account and I acknowledge that mistake," he said.

    Lyons said he asked Edwards if he could "borrow some of her money" to pay for expenses related to an upcoming convention meeting. He described those expenses as "deposits and things."

    "She agreed and I used $38,000 of her money."

    Later, Edwards contacted Lyons at his church. She wanted to buy a diamond ring, he said. The price was $36,000. Lyons said he told Edwards that he "only had $12,000" of her $50,000.

    Edwards asked him for $10,000, he said. On his way to church one Sunday morning, he dropped off the check at the Don CeSar Resort and Spa where Edwards was staying. "The closest I came to her was when she reached her hand into the car window and took the check," he said. "I was never in her room at the resort."

    A year earlier, Lyons and Edwards bought a time-share interest in a plush resort in Lake Tahoe, Nev. For $22,500, they received the right to book a two-bedroom condominium for one week every year.

    Lyons told the newspaper that Edwards was looking to buy property as a tax shelter. "I am a businessman and I was advising her as a businessman about investments," he told the Sentinel Bulletin.

    The newspaper also asked Lyons about controversial aspects of his personal life, including why his marriage certificate said he had never been married.

    While studying and preaching in Georgia in his 20s, Lyons married and divorced twice. But when he married Deborah in 1972, his Ohio marriage license stated it was his first marriage.

    "I just forgot," Lyons told the Sentinel Bulletin, noting that the Georgia marriages were brief.

    Two women have said that Lyons fathered their children in the 1960s, before he married Deborah Lyons.

    When Eartha Carter Watson became pregnant with her daughter, Treva Langley, Lyons' grandparents in Gainesville agreed to support her and the child. For several years, Lyons would see Langley when he visited his grandparents. He cut off contact after marrying Deborah, Watson and her daughter said.

    In the interview, Lyons said his grandparents and Watson's parents met to discuss her pregnancy. They agreed that he could not be the father and did not have to support the child. His grandparents agreed to help support and raise the child, Lyons said.

    Ola Mae Daniels of St. Petersburg also said Lyons fathered her child, a son, Martin. Lyons gave her money over the years although he didn't have much contact with her son.

    In the interview, Lyons said he doesn't know whether Martin Lyons is his son. Daniels was his friend, he said, and he would sometimes help her financially if he could.

    Lyons told the Sentinel Bulletin he had not considered resigning his post with the National Baptist Convention. He said he would "certainly think about" that if it came to "hurting the church." Lyons was elected president in three years ago.

    His future may depend on the outcome of an internal investigation. An 18-member panel is expected to report its findings to the full convention at a meeting in Denver next month.

    In preparation for that meeting, Lyons sent a letter to pastors and members of the convention on Aug. 1. Lyons said he feared ministers and churches may withhold contributions this year to convention programs.

    "I want to assure you that I am not the person that is presently being painted across America," he said. "I was trustworthy before and I am trustworthy now."

    He also asked each of the convention's 33,000 churches to make a "Holy Trinity Offering" at the convention to help pay off the mortgage on the World Center, the convention's headquarters in Nashville.

    "All churches are asked to give no less that $300 ($100 for the Father, $100 for the Son and $100 for the Holy Spirit.)"


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