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Lyons' aide able to elude investigators


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 19, 2006

TAMPA -- Bonita Henderson worked beside the Rev. Henry J. Lyons for five years.

As his administrative assistant, she was privy to his activities as president of the Florida General Baptist Convention and, later, the National Baptist Convention USA Inc.

In 1995, two months after she left Lyons' employ, he paid her $150,000 from a secret convention account, records show.

"Hush money," investigators called it.

So far, Henderson appears to have sidestepped repeated efforts by federal prosecutors to bring her in front of a grand jury that began investigating Lyons last year.

On Thursday, her son told the grand jury Henderson is too frightened for her personal safety to cooperate, he said.

The son, Marion Kitt, said prosecutors asked him, in front of the federal grand jury, if he knows where she is. He said he was no help.

"I don't know where she is," said Kitt, 25, of Tampa. "She has put her stuff in storage, and I don't think she's coming back."

He said he hears from his mother every now and then. She calls. But she won't say where she lives, he said. "She said it wasn't safe," Kitt said. Henderson has never even met her 13-month-old granddaughter, Kitt said.

Amid indications that the grand jury is close to completing its investigation of Lyons, Kitt was one of three witnesses who testified Thursday. The other two witnesses, accompanied by attorneys, declined comment.

Meeting every Thursday on the fourth floor of the old Federal Courthouse in Tampa, the grand jury has heard testimony from Lyons' employees, convention leaders, an IRS investigator, his business associates and his tax preparers.

In interviews, grand jury witnesses have said prosecutors appear to be focusing on possible tax violations and several forged convention documents. Prosecutors, citing grand jury secrecy rules, have declined to discuss their investigation.

Henderson, 42, has many ties to Lyons. She worked for him, attended his St. Petersburg church and campaigned for his 1994 election for president of the National Baptist Convention. In 1993, the two jointly obtained a fictitious name for a Tampa computer business, Bonita Works, state corporate records show.

In 1995, Kitt said, Henderson came to believe Lyons was "crooked."

Said Kitt: "He started lying about things, so she quit."

And when prosecutors began investigating Lyons' financial dealings last year, Henderson heard rumors that her safety might be in jeopardy, Kitt said. "The problem was, she knew too much."

Grady Irvin, an attorney for Lyons, declined to respond to Kitt's comments.

Federal prosecutors aren't the only law enforcement officials who have attempted to interview Henderson.

Last July, weeks after Lyons' wife set fire to a $700,000 waterfront home he co-owned with convention employee Bernice Edwards, an investigator for the Pinellas-Pasco state attorney's office tried to track her down. The best investigator David Kurash could manage was a brief telephone conversation.

"Henderson advised me that "Lyons uses' the NBC to defraud corporations by convincing them to give money to NBC, and "then he doesn't do anything,' " Kurash wrote in a report. "Henderson said she resigned because of what Lyons was doing. She further said that he uses the NBC bank account as his own personal bank account."

Henderson was in Philadelphia during that phone call. Two days later, when she was scheduled to arrive at the state attorney's office for a full interview, she never showed.

"Her "aunt' called, canceled the interview and said that Henderson had disappeared. We have been unable to locate her since and her whereabouts are unknown," Kurash wrote.

It was Kurash who traced a $150,000 payment to Henderson from the Baptist Builder Fund, a secret account Lyons maintained at the United Bank in St. Petersburg. "I strongly suspect that the $150,000 payment to her, two months after she resigned, was "hush money' to keep her from going to authorities regarding Lyons' activities," Kurash wrote.

In a report last fall to his convention, Lyons described paying Henderson $150,000 for a mailing list of NBC members he then sold to an Oklahoma company that wanted to sell insurance to Baptists.

In February, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe charged Lyons with racketeering and grand theft. A trial is scheduled for January 1999.

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