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  • Lyons' lawyer draws on his past

    By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
    ©St. Petersburg Times, published August 18, 1997

    ST. PETERSBURG -- The day the Rev. Henry Lyons was scheduled to face reporters and talk about his wife's arson arrest, Grady Irvin Jr. impulsively joined the crowd gathering at Lyons' church.

    All he intended to do was offer support for an old friend, he said, but he was pulled into the room where Lyons' inner circle was putting the final touches on Lyons' speech.

    "I was asked to come in with all these dignitaries and luminaries," Irvin said. He sat down behind Lyons, whom he calls "Doc," and they talked briefly.

    "At that point," Irvin said, "I became his attorney. I never put a contract in his face. I never talked money. ... What was important to me was his personal welfare as well as his family's personal welfare."

    In the four weeks since that news conference, Irvin, 33, has been Lyons' main spokesman, fielding questions about the tangled finances of the National Baptist Convention USA and its embattled president.

    Irvin has had several big-name national clients but was little known by the local bar. He says he realizes veteran lawyers are amazed someone with just three years' membership in the Florida Bar could wind up with such a high-profile, high-pressure case.

    Irvin's background gives no indication that he would land in such a spot. It is outside his specialty. His intellect and oratory dazzled everyone in law school, but after he graduated, it took him two years to gain admission to the bar. He now faces a bar complaint filed by one of the former employers who fired him.

    Beyond the criticism from other lawyers, Irvin says he has taken flak from some of Lyons' supporters, who believe Irvin has done a poor job because revelations continue to make the news. "I'm getting all this pressure: "Make them stop writing this stuff!' But what can I do?"

    Under fire from all sides, Irvin has sometimes lost his cool, yelling at reporters or barking a "no comment" before hearing the whole question.

    Irvin has given only one extensive interview regarding Lyons and the convention's finances. It backfired on him. Because he talked about why prosecutors should not be allowed to subpoena Lyons' bank records, a judge said Irvin waived the right to keep secret the motions to block those subpoenas.

    Friends who regard Irvin as a young lawyer with a bright future say they feel badly that he has been caught up in the controversy surrounding Lyons.

    "I kind of wish he were not thrust into this," said Stetson University law professor William Eleazer. "It's kind of a no-win situation for him."

    The strain on Irvin showed in an interview last month. While talking about his involvement in the Lyons case, he began to cry.

    "I do what I do not to make a living but to make my family happy," he said in a shaky voice. "If I died tomorrow, they would be proud to see this. But I've learned I have lots of enemies. Some, you don't even know about. I'm learning that in this case right here, and it's bothering me."

    He paused, then said, "I don't know how long I'll practice law. It's such a game to some people. I never asked for this case."

    'A way with words'

    Irvin lives in a modest house in a gated community in St. Petersburg with his second wife, Pamela, a flight attendant he met while she was a cheerleader at Bethune-Cookman College and he was a trainer for the football team.

    The house is not far from Bethel Metropolitan Baptist, which Lyons heads and Irvin attended while in law school at Stetson in Gulfport. He now belongs to an A.M.E. church in Palmetto, where his wife grew up.

    On the Irvins' living room walls hang a copy of the Florida Constitution, a portrait of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis and a painting of a Nigerian marketplace. By the television set is a stack of videotapes with titles ranging from Forrest Gump to "Grady on CNN."

    The Lyons case is far from the first taste of national publicity for Irvin, who mostly has represented professional athletes such as former Green Bay Packers wide receiver Sterling Sharpe.

    When Dallas Cowboys cornerback Clayton Holmes flunked a urinalysis, Irvin made headlines by suing the NFL to overturn its drug-testing policy, contending that "the urine of everyone is constitutionally protected." A federal judge ordered Irvin to apologize for filing a frivolous suit.

    Irvin is a key player on what may turn out to be the biggest sports-related court case in history: Frank Morsani's multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Major League Baseball over Morsani's failed efforts to acquire a team for Tampa Bay. Irvin has spent years working on behalf of Morsani under the guidance of Tampa lawyer Tony Cunningham.

    Until he was hired by Lyons, Irvin said, "I thought that would be the biggest case of my life."

    Although he has done little trial work, Irvin was known in law school for his compelling courtroom manner. He racked up dozens of awards in mock trial and moot court competitions, twice earning the Florida Bar's Chester Bedell Most Outstanding Student Trial Lawyer Award.

    "He was a natural orator," Eleazer said. "He had a way with words."

    No peaceful parting

    Richard Berthelson, the top lawyer at the NFL Players Association, admired Irvin's talent so much that he sought him out in 1994 to handle player grievances, paying him $65,000 a year.

    In 1995, though, Irvin was shown the door.

    "That parting wasn't peaceful," Irvin said. Part of the problem, he said, was racial: Berthelson "would always go to lunch with the white lawyers and wouldn't ask me," he said.

    Not true, said Berthelson. Irvin was fired because he couldn't get along with co-workers, wouldn't take orders and filed a lawsuit without checking with anyone, Berthelson said.

    Irvin then sued the players association on behalf of himself and two players he had represented for the union. Union officials complained to the Florida Bar that, by suing his former employer, Irvin had violated a bar rule governing conflicts of interest.

    A bar grievance committee investigated and agreed. In the complaint filed with the Florida Supreme Court last week, the committee also found that Irvin had "falsely maintained" to the committee that he had not been a staff attorney for the union -- contrary to his own business card.

    'A very good ending'

    When Irvin talks about his legal career, dropping the names of his famous clients, it is clear he has come a long way from his roots in Daytona Beach.

    He was the child of a single mother who put aside an education to raise her family. After her children were grown, she went to college. His father, a Baptist deacon, runs a lawn-maintenance service. One sister, Irvin said, has an MBA from Harvard, while one brother has a drug problem.

    Irvin played football in high school, by his account not well but with zeal. He attended Bethune-Cookman on a pre-med scholarship but became interested in politics instead, winning election as class president.

    Other campaigns have been less successful. When he ran for the Legislature as an Independent three years ago, he lost to Democrat Rudy Bradley, despite Lyons' endorsement. Irvin says he should have listened to his wife and not run, but "I was being stubborn and ambitious."

    Irvin credits his interest in politics to a college meeting with former Florida House Speaker Rep. T.K. Wetherell. Irvin says Wetherell recruited him to work in two major Democratic campaigns: Steve Pajcic's race for governor in 1986, then Bill Nelson's run at the governor's mansion in the next election.

    While trying to drum up minority voter support for Pajcic, Irvin said, he first met Lyons, then president of the Florida Baptist Convention. Irvin said Pajcic's staff wanted Lyons on their side. Lyons endorsed Pajcic after meeting the candidate.

    Ultimately, Pajcic lost to Republican Bob Martinez. Three years later, Irvin said, Wetherell tapped him again for Nelson's campaign.

    But in July 1989, Nelson's campaign manager, Ted Phelps, fired Irvin for "rank insubordination." After learning he had been fired, Irvin used Nelson campaign stationery to send out a news release blasting Nelson's stand on civil rights issues.

    Phelps said then that Irvin's firing "had absolutely nothing to do with Bill Nelson's civil rights record. He simply refused to do what I wanted him to do."

    Irvin insists Nelson's campaign leaders lied to him about Nelson's record. When he learned the truth, he said, he had to announce it to the world.

    "I was young and foolish then," he said, "and I probably should've ignored it and taken the money."

    Blasting Nelson cost him dearly when he graduated from law school, he said: "They held up my admission for almost two years. The bar contacts your employers, and if they say something negative, they hold hearings."

    Irvin was admitted to the bar and has been a member for three years.

    The Nelson experience soured Irvin on politics. But he said his increased public exposure with the Lyons case has led some friends to suggest he run for office again. He said he might consider it, looking ahead to the time when the storm over the Lyons case finally clears.

    "This will all eventually end someday," he said, "and we will all move on to other things. I just hope it has a very good ending."

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