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The Rev. Henry Lyons

 

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Lyons defiant, conciliatory in TV interview

By MIKE WILSON, Times Staff Writer
©St. Petersburg Times, published October 1, 1997

A sometimes repentant, sometimes combative Henry J. Lyons took to the national airwaves Tuesday night to answer viewers' questions, lambaste the media for his troubles and apologize -- but for just one thing.

"Basically the one great big error was an error in judgment," Lyons said in a live, 35-minute interview on the cable channel Black Entertainment Television.

"I was simply trying to do a friend a favor by making an investment in real estate," he said, referring to his purchase of a $700,000 Tierra Verde house with convicted embezzler and "family friend" Bernice Edwards.

He denied that he hid the purchase from his wife, Deborah, who was charged with arson after setting fires in the house in July.

"I did inform my wife. That is true, there's no question about that. I informed her, she had a key, that's understood. But (buying the house) was a great error . . . I would never, ever make that kind of mistake again."

Added Lyons: "I feel forgiven."

Lyons, the embattled president of the National Baptist Convention USA, appeared on BET Tonight, hosted by Tavis Smiley. It was his first national television interview since he came under scrutiny for his handling of convention business and for questionable relationships with Edwards and other women.

BET producer Jaci Clark said Lyons agreed to the interview on the condition that his lawyer, Grady Irvin, sit next to him on the set, which Irvin did. BET paid Lyons' and Irvin's coach-class airfare to Washington, D.C., but Lyons received no fee for giving the interview, she said.

Smiley began by asking Lyons what he would say to those who feel betrayed by his actions, including Lyons' use of a secret convention account to buy luxury items for Edwards, and Lyons' lucrative deal with a white-owned funeral home company.

"I realize there's a lot of hurt out there throughout America, in black and white America," Lyons said, almost in a whisper. "There's a sense of shame sometimes, a deep sense of shame sometimes . . . It wakes me up early in the morning and makes it hard to sleep at night."

At other times Lyons was defiant, blaming the media for many of his troubles.

"No one has withstood the scrutiny that I have had to withstand over the last three months in the history of this country," he said.

He mentioned the U.S. government's investigation into the slaying of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., adding, "conspiracy is alive in this country." Smiley asked Lyons if he believes there was a conspiracy against him.

"Not at all, but I am saying that it developed into that," Lyons said.

Smiley accepted questions from viewers who called in. One asked Lyons about the $244,500 that the Anti-Defamation League raised on behalf of burned black churches throughout the South. The ADL asked Lyons to distribute the money to needy churches, but Lyons passed out only $30,000. He later returned the rest to the ADL.

The caller wanted to know what Lyons had done with the money in the meantime, but Irvin wouldn't let him respond. "As much as he wants to answer that question, I'm going to advise him not to answer it," Irvin said.

Lyons again accused two other church umbrella groups of withholding large sums of money that have been raised on behalf of burned black churches. He accused the media of a double-standard for not reporting that the National Council of Churches and the National Congress of Black Churches have not distributed all the money they have raised.

Both groups have heatedly denied Lyons' allegation and have suggested that he is merely trying to deflect criticism his own actions.

Asked if he should have resigned as president of the convention, Lyons said he felt he had a mandate to stay.

"The fact of the matter is that it was about 400 against, and I'm talking generally now, and about 15,000 for me," he said, referring to an informal referendum on his presidency at the convention's September meeting in Denver.

Smiley asked Lyons if he thought it was right for ministers to lead "lavish lifestyles" that include $700,000 homes and $130,000 cars.

"Well, lavish lifestyles, I'm not quite so sure about that," Lyons said. Anyway, he said, "That's the Henry Lyons that the media created. The Henry Lyons that most people know is the Henry Lyons that drove one car for 17 years."

Near the end Lyons was again conciliatory, saying, "To have to deal with so much shame, so much disgrace, and so much discomfort . . . it has humbled me."


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