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Lyons backers: Others misused donations

By MONICA DAVEY, MIKE WILSON and DAVID BARSTOW

©St. Petersburg Times, published September 20, 1997


NEW YORK -- Days after Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons admitted withholding $214,500 in donations for burned-out black churches, his supporters alleged Friday that two other church groups mishandled far more money meant to rebuild destroyed churches.

"I assure you that most of the monies in both cases . . . have not reached their proper destination," the Rev. C. Eugene Overstreet said at a news conference here.

Overstreet, of Cleveland, offered few specifics to back his claims against the National Council of Churches and the Congress of National Black Churches.

Flanked by six other ministers, he demanded both groups account for millions of dollars they raised to rebuild churches across the South. He also urged reporters to "open an intense inquiry" into both groups.

Leaders of the groups defended their handling of church money and suggested the news conference was an attempt by Lyons to shift attention away from his own financial missteps.

"We have been extraordinarily faithful in our stewardship of the funds that we have," said Sullivan Robinson, executive director of the Congress of National Black Churches.

National Council of Churches officials said in a news release they were "distressed" by the "inaccurate information" being spread about their work with burned churches.

The day's angriest response came from the Anti-Defamation League, the group that turned to Lyons in 1996 to distribute $244,500 it had collected from thousands of donors who wanted to take a stand against racist arsonists.

After league officials sent the money to Lyons, they received letters bearing Lyons' signature assuring them the donations had been sent to stricken congregations. Lyons now acknowledges he sent only $30,000 and withheld the rest because he determined the churches didn't need help -- a conclusion not shared by their pastors.

"It continues to be sad that Dr. Lyons is putting himself into the position of a victim by pointing a finger elsewhere, where there's no reason to believe there's been any misfeasance or wrongdoing," said Abraham Foxman, national chairman of the ADL.

"Let him first explain what he did or did not do before attacking others," he said.

ADL officials said Lyons has yet to provide a satisfactory explanation of why he withheld $214,500. Attorneys for the ADL are waiting for proof that Lyons sent even the $30,000 he claims to have given to burned churches.

Lyons refunded $214,500 to the group this week. Foxman is waiting for the check to clear. Meanwhile, he wonders whether Lyons' actions will discourage people from helping out the next time a community is in need.

"It may go to undermine the desire of good people in a moment of need and crisis to say, "Here I am,' " he said.

'Our purpose is not to attack but try to define'

Lyons did not attend Friday's news conference at the Drake Swiss Hotel on Park Avenue.

He orchestrated the event from behind the scenes.

A news release announcing the event listed the phone number of his St. Petersburg church and named one of his associates as the contact person. Two days before the news conference, Lyons called the Times to say he had been "doing some digging" into the National Council of Churches.

"You better fasten your seat belt," he said.

Of the seven ministers at the news conference, four identified themselves as members of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. One, the Rev. H. Devore Chapman, is a member of Lyons' hand-picked executive committee. Overstreet, who sits on NBC's board, spoke passionately in Lyons' defense when convention members tried to oust him in Denver earlier this month.

Nevertheless, Overstreet insisted Lyons had nothing to do with the news conference, and he angrily denied that it was an attempt to take pressure off Lyons.

He said he and the others spoke in response to numerous calls and letters from people concerned whether money for burned churches has been spent as intended.

"There is an ongoing desire to bring to closure, to bring some type of clarity . . . about the funding of (burned) black churches," he said.

"Our purpose in being here is not to attack but try to define."

But Overstreet raised questions about the National Council of Churches, which has raised $10.8-million in contributions and another $10-million in federal Housing and Urban Development funds.

"In the interest of fair play and parity, an enormous number of pastors across the nation have raised questions regarding the alleged huge sums of contributions given to the National Council of Churches," he said.

Overstreet said he was not satisfied with the accounting he received during a recent meeting with the Rev. Joan B. Campbell, general secretary of the group. Pointing to the council's financial reports, he questioned why $371,000 went to salaries and another $169,000 went to office operations.

Were such expenses necessary? he asked.

The National Council responded with a statement signed by leaders of several major black religious denominations, including the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and the National Baptist Convention of America, and the Progressive National Baptist Convention.

The council, a Christian umbrella group, accounted for its contributions this way: It gave $4.3-million in cash and $1.5-million in lumber and other materials to burned churches during the first phase of the rebuilding project, which concluded in May. It also spent $1-million on anti-racism education programs. It has $2.5-million left in cash and goods for a planned second wave of renovations. About 10 percent of the $10.8-million was used for salaries and administration, spokeswoman Carol Fouke said.

As for the $10-million in HUD money, the group said it is held by HUD to secure private bank loans for rebuilding. "None of the $10-million has entered or even passed through" the National Council's accounts, the statement said.

$6-million grant from Lilly Endowment

In January, the Congress of National Black Churches announced a three-year, $12.8-million program to rebuild burned churches and teach people about race relations. The Lilly Endowment of Indianapolis donated $6-million and the CNBC is trying to raise the rest from other sources, said Robinson, the executive director.

The group plans to rebuild 50 churches.

But Overstreet criticized the Congress of National Black Churches for not answering questions about how it spent money for burned churches.

"We have no record (from CNBC) of the churches receiving any funds," he said.

He added, "We're talking about suffering people who are out there, people who have lost their churches to hate crimes."

Robinson said the CNBC has sent letters to eight churches saying they will receive a total of $750,000.

The Lilly Endowment requires a careful accounting of how money is spent, Robinson said. The group recently filed its first six-month report with the endowment. A spokeswoman for the Lilly Endowment said the foundation has no complaints.

"Everything is just fine," Gretchen Wolfram said. "This is not a new group to us. We've been with them a long time."

The CNBC also received $100,000 from the Anti-Defamation League to rebuild churches. It used the money to help six churches in South Carolina, Virginia and Alabama. The ADL plans to ask the CNBC to distribute the $214,500 that Lyons returned.

Questions focus on Lyons

Overstreet's attempts to draw reporters' attention to the two groups fell flat.

Most of the questions were about Lyons.

Overstreet repeated many of the defenses Lyons has offered: That letters were sent to the ADL without Lyons' approval; that Lyons safeguarded the money and set up a "method and criteria" for its careful distribution; that Lyons handled the money with "total integrity and honesty."

He was asked about a statement by Grady Irvin, an attorney for Lyons. Irvin was quoted as saying some ADL money was diverted to black colleges.

"An attorney spoke too damn quick, before he knew what he was talking about," Overstreet said.

But he did offer one new explanation about why Lyons withheld money from black churches. He said Lyons developed "gross suspicion about inside jobs and arsons."

Overstreet became angry when reporters persisted in questioning him about Lyons. He accused the Times of hounding Lyons. He challenged reporters to use "the same vigor and vitality to . . . seek out this $32-million" raised by the two church groups.

"We can justify every penny to the dime of what Dr. Lyons disbursed."


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