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  • Lyons' friend stole money from school


    ©St. Petersburg Times, published
    July 10, 1997

    Photo AP

    MILWAUKEE -- Bernice V. Edwards, the woman who owns a Rolls-Royce and $700,000 Tierra Verde home with Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons, was convicted here in 1994 of embezzling more than $60,000 in federal funds from an alternative high school.

    Edwards, then executive director of the Quality Skills Building Center, a school for at-risk children, was sentenced to three years' probation and ordered to pay $32,652 in restitution, court records show. As part of a plea agreement, she admitted guilt to the federal embezzling charge and promised to cooperate with prosecutors against her co-defendant, funeral home owner Arthur Reid, who later received a prison sentence.

    On Monday, Lyons' wife of 25 years was charged with setting fire to the Tierra Verde home. Deborah Lyons acted after discovering a deed for the opulent waterfront home, police reports say. Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, the largest black church group in the country, has declined to comment on his relationship with Edwards.

    But according to court records here, he is aware of her criminal past, and the National Baptist Convention helped pay her restitution. In October 1995, Edwards' lawyer asked a federal judge to release her from probation, pointing to her job as "National Public Relations Director" for the Baptist convention.

    "The leaders of the National Baptist Convention and in particular Dr. Henry J. Lyons, its president, are fully aware of the criminal conviction of Bernice Jones and her sentence in your court," her attorney, Franklyn M. Gimbel, wrote in a letter to the judge. (At the time, Edwards, 40, went by the name Bernice Jones.)

    "In order to assist Ms. Jones to fully meet all of her responsibilities under the sentence, the National Baptist Convention has advanced funds on a periodic, regular basis to Ms. Jones to address her restitution obligations."

    Quality Skills contracted with the Milwaukee public school system to provide education services under Learnfare, a government program that penalizes welfare recipients if their children don't go to school. According to prosecutors, Edwards repeatedly dipped into school funds in 1992 for her own needs. She spent $5,600 on furs and other items, $3,800 on clothes, $1,000 for central air conditioning, $5,100 for a car, $3,000 for another car, and $2,400 on car repairs. Arthur Reid, the school's chairman, embezzled $30,000 to help pay for his funeral home, and thousands more.

    The school closed in 1992.

    Edwards embezzled by having the school's employees cash checks -- as if they were pay vouchers for educational items -- but then return the money to her, court documents say. "She bought clothes, but gave the school's accountant receipts that showed the money was spent on computer parts," a prosecution memo said.

    The terms of her probation suggest Edwards was having wider financial trouble. She was ordered to open no new checking accounts, to close all existing accounts and not to "sign any checks except to endorse pay checks or AFDC (welfare) payments." She was barred from opening new credit accounts without approval from her probation officer. She was ordered to "cooperate with the IRS to submit all delinquent tax returns and pay back taxes . . . and file 1993 individual tax returns."

    Records show Edwards owes tens of thousands of dollars in state and federal taxes.

    According to her attorney, though, Edwards has paid her restitution and completed her probation. In a 1995 letter to the judge, her attorney wrote: "Ms. Jones has made extraordinary progress towards rebuilding her life following the ill-advised activities which brought her to your court some two years ago."

    Records, though, show that Edwards has continued to leave a trail of unpaid debts and bankruptcies. She has used at least nine different names in recent years, always in varying styles. Bernice Bre. Bernice E. Jones. Brenice V. Edwards. In the same Nigerian hotel where Lyons was staying this week, she was registered under Bre Jones. (The two checked out of the hotel at the same time on Wednesday morning.)

    Edwards also has used at least six Social Security numbers. One of her Social Security numbers belongs to a Gladys Whitten who was 74 years old when she died.

    When buying the house in Tierra Verde, Edwards indicated she was a secretary and personal assistant. To others in the community, she said she was independently wealthy. To her neighbors, she said she was a widow whose husband had been involved in radio and TV.

    According to court records, Edwards began serving as public relations director for the Baptist convention in the summer of 1994, the same year Lyons was elected president of the organization. Her attorney, describing her duties in a court document, said Edwards travels "throughout the United States, upon relatively short notice, to attend to public relations activities throughout the country. Those activities include dealing with local media and organizing meetings on behalf of the convention."

    A variety of court records show that Edwards and Lyons have a close financial relationship, including shared bank accounts.

    In 1995, a Milwaukee printing company obtained a $6,330 judgment against Lyons, Edwards and the Florida General Baptist Convention Inc. It was not immediately clear what the debt was for, but there is no record that it has been paid.

    A month ago, a Clearwater company called Bay Imports filed a lawsuit against Edwards in Pinellas circuit court seeking $89,275 for a 20.06 carat diamond and other jewelry she bought on Feb. 10.

    In all, she bought $130,775 worth of items, including the diamond, hoop earrings and "Erte & Morl Chagau and Salvador Dali Lantrel," according to the lawsuit.

    On March 22, the lawsuit states, Edwards wrote a check to Bay Imports for $25,000, but the check bounced. A copy of the Mercantile Bank check, which is attached to the lawsuit, shows it is for a checking account held in the names of Henry J. Lyons and Bernice V. Edwards at the Tierra Verde address.

    In May, a 1997 Mercedes-Benz was registered in the name of "Bethel Metropolitan Church and Edwards." It was unclear whether the "Edwards" on the registration is Bernice Edwards. But because it was registered in the church's name, no sales tax was paid on the car, said Pilar Delp, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Motor Vehicles and Highway Safety.

    Churches are exempt from sales taxes.

    In early April, Edwards called the Dali Museum, urgently seeking someone who could decorate the Tierra Verde house for a large church gathering. The museum put her in touch with art consultant Eric Lang Peterson.

    Peterson visited the house, then returned with artwork from his gallery. "It was furnished, but she had nothing on the walls," Peterson said.

    Edwards, who referred to herself as Dr. Edwards, agreed to purchase about 15 pieces for $3,500, Peterson said. Edwards paid him $1,000 in $100 bills and agreed to pay the remainder in about two weeks, he said.

    Peterson said he has not been able to collect the money, despite several attempts. "I couldn't reach her by phone and I wasn't getting any response by mail," Peterson said.

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