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Lyons' friend was under financial restrictions


©St. Petersburg Times, published November 6, 1997

MILWAUKEE -- Bernice Edwards helped set up a secret bank account the year after a federal judge put her on tight financial restrictions, including a ban on any new bank accounts without permission from her probation officer.

As Judge Thomas J. Curran sentenced Edwards in 1994 for embezzling thousands of dollars from an alternative school she created for at-risk teens, he gave her specific instructions about how she should handle money for the next three years:

"I'm going to require that you provide access to all financial information to the supervising probation officer, and that you not open any new lines of credit without the prior approval of the probation officer.

"I'm also going to during this period require that you not open a new checking account and close all existing accounts, and I'm going to restrict your activity as far as checks are concerned to signing checks that may be received from AFDC or other official sources, but not other types of checks that may come into your possession without the prior consent and approval of the probation officer."

Probation officials in Milwaukee declined to comment on Edwards' case or whether she notified them of plans to establish J.H. Associates, a bank account through which more than $1-million circulated, some of which went for Edwards' personal expenses.

Edwards' three-year probation ended months ago. It is a mystery then, why federal officials this fall requested a transcript of her sentencing -- a courtroom scene that took place almost four years ago, on Jan. 21, 1994. Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Biskupic would not comment Wednesday.

What is clear from the recently filed transcript is this: Edwards avoided jail because she cooperated with investigators against her partner, who did go to prison, and because officials believed she was a good-hearted mother who had learned her lesson.

That also was the picture Edwards, who has left a string of debts, Social Security numbers and bankruptcy filings behind her, presented as she asked for forgiveness.

"Your honor, I am terribly sorry," Edwards told the court. "I understand what I've done and I understand that it is wrong. I love my community. I love my children. I love God and I'm very sorry. I started to get my life together, and I made a foolish mistake. I want to be home with my children. And I beg the court to permit it to be so. That's all."

Even Biskupic, the prosecutor, told the judge Edwards should not serve time in prison.

"Your honor, the government's position on this defendant is, when we consider all the things that she was doing at the same time, I can't help but think that she's not a bad person, she just did such foolish things. There's such a sense of responsibility that comes from her actions."

Edwards went to the FBI to pass along damaging information about Arthur Reid, her partner at the school, according to the transcript. "I can't help but think she had to be motivated by some kind of sense of responsibility that law enforcement needed accurate information," Biskupic said.

Edwards' defense attorney, Franklyn Gimbel, said he had grown friendly with Edwards, who was known in Milwaukee by the last name of Jones, and was even handling her case at no cost. "I think Bernice (Edwards) is a good human being, notwithstanding the fact that she embezzled funds. She is an outstanding mother.

"Bernice (Edwards') story is a storybook kind of Horatio Alger story until she started to engage in this outrageously foolish behavior. She surmounted almost incredible odds by coming from a gigantic family of 17 children, very humble origin. Her father was a sharecropper, farmer in the deep South of the United States."

The whole experience had changed Edwards, Gimbel said. "I think that her life ahead of her is one where this case has served as a gigantic lesson that I think will put her in a position where she'll be, if it's possible, more sensitive to the need of people who come from somewhat impoverished backgrounds to work within the framework of the law. Ms. (Edwards) has learned stepping outside of the framework of the law carries with it outrageously serious consequences."

In the end, the judge ordered Edwards to pay $32,652 in restitution, to stay in home detention for four months and to live up to the terms of probation, including the financial rules, for three years.

Said Curran: "Now, Ms. (Edwards), all I can say to you is that this is a very expensive lesson, and I hope you will learn a lot from it. And I hope you can put this behind you now, work from this base and look forward to more than half your life being a productive and happy occasion."

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