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Lyons probe is watched closely

By MONICA DAVEY and DAVID BARSTOW

©St. Petersburg Times, published January 13, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG -- Citing their "major interest" in the National Baptist Convention USA, federal prosecutors in Tennessee said Monday they may pursue their own criminal inquiry into the organization if they are not satisfied with a federal grand jury investigation under way in Tampa.

"Our major concern is that the matter be investigated fully and properly," said Robert J. Washko, a veteran assistant U.S. attorney in Nashville, Tenn., who specializes in white-collar crime.

"We will monitor it carefully," he said of the grand jury investigation, adding that the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa is "aware of our interest."

Charles Wilson, the U.S. attorney in Tampa, announced last fall that his office was investigating the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, the St. Petersburg pastor who is president of the convention, for questionable handling of the group's finances.

Wilson's assistants have collected thousands of convention documents and subpoenaed top convention officials to testify before weekly sessions of the grand jury.

But Washko's comments are the first indication that federal prosecutors in Nashville -- where the convention has its headquarters -- also may pursue an investigation.

They also are the first signal that Nashville prosecutors want a voice in whatever federal charges might be brought against Lyons or the convention.

Officials at Wilson's office declined to comment late Monday.

"They've jumped out in the lead," Washko said of Wilson's office. And for now, he said, his office is satisfied with that arrangement. ("We're not ones here big for stats," he said.)

But Washko said Wilson does not have the authority to unilaterally resolve charges that touch on Nashville, and federal prosecutors there would expect to be consulted as part of any plea negotiations.

"Florida (federal prosecutors) can't tie our hands," Washko said.

"We have an interest open, and it's not an insignificant interest because of the location of the organization. As long as things work out to our satisfaction there may be no need for us to file charges . . . but I haven't closed any doors at all," he said.

The widening investigation is complicated by the fact that Lyons' financial dealings occurred in several cities, which means several prosecutors potentially have jurisdiction in the case.

FBI agents in Milwaukee said Monday they are continuing their investigation into Bernice Edwards, a convicted embezzler and former convention employee who was Lyons' partner in several controversial deals.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe also is investigating Lyons, and his office is continuing to issue subpoenas for records and witnesses.

The situation presents complications for Lyons and the convention, as well. No fewer than 10 attorneys have been hired to defend Lyons, the convention and convention employees from the various inquiries.

In an unrelated development, the Rev. E.V. Hill, an influential Los Angeles minister, sent convention leaders a letter and a 24-page booklet in preparation for the group's meeting next week in Los Angeles.

In the letter, Hill, one of Lyons' strongest supporters, implored members to attend the meeting. "Bring every dime you can bring. If you don't have any money, come on anyway. Do not wait until (the annual meeting in) September. Give now."

The booklet -- titled "What Can I Tell My People about the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc.?" -- offered 112 items pastors should tell their church members to ease concerns after last fall's tumultuous meeting in Denver, where Lyons survived a campaign for his ouster.

No. 25: "You can tell your people that every point that was pointed out to Dr. Lyons to be wrong or to have made a poor judgment, he confessed it openly and asked for forgiveness."

Hill criticized white media outlets, particularly the "white, Southern press," for their focus on Lyons' story. Hill said that some people have been offered money to "give false testimony" about Lyons.

No. 67: "You can tell your people that, in my opinion, the most disappointed, angry and frustrated people, after the vote, were the white press."

In an interview Monday, the Rev. Fred Crouther, a convention vice president and chairman of its budget committee, said the convention is struggling to pay its bills.

"We've been able to keep up with the financial responsibilities of the convention," Crouther said, but fund raising "will be very important" when convention board members meet in Los Angeles.

Last fall, after Lyons' handling of convention finances caused a furor, Crouther was named to a new four-person committee charged with overseeing convention finances.

Asked if he is now more confident that convention money is being spent properly, Crouther replied: "Definitely."

Lyons, meanwhile, has taken his first steps to rid himself of the luxury items that angered some members of his convention.

Last month, Lyons sold the deep blue 1987 Rolls-Royce that he and Edwards co-owned. State records show that the car, which had been parked at the Tierra Verde house that Lyons and Edwards also co-own, was taken out of their names on Dec. 18.

The pair obtained the car on July 4, 1996, as a gift from Mary E. Strong, the elderly mother of the man with whom Edwards lived before his death.

The car title listed Lyons "or" Edwards as the owners, a provision that would allow Lyons to sell it without Edwards' approval, said a spokeswoman for the state Department of Motor Vehicles and Highway Safety.

It is not clear whether Edwards was involved in the sale or how the proceeds were divided. She did not return a phone call to her Milwaukee home on Monday, and Lyons could not be reached.

The car's new owner, Rob Ambrose, said he never spoke with or met Edwards, and paid Lyons with a cashier's check for $30,000.

Ambrose, a 34-year-old St. Petersburg businessman, was long acquainted with Lyons. His parents once owned a Central Avenue appliance store and years ago sold vacuums to Lyons' church, Bethel Metropolitan Baptist.

Ambrose said he became reacquainted with the minister late last year when he was hired to design outdoor Christmas decorations for the Lyons family home.

That's when Ambrose asked about the car. He looked over the car and decided to buy it. Lyons later threw in a decorative license plate bearing the Rolls-Royce crest.

Ambrose said the car survived a trip to Miami but broke down Saturday along Gulf Boulevard. It was in the shop Monday.

Grady Irvin, an attorney for Lyons, said the pastor also is trying to sell the $700,000 waterfront home on Tierra Verde.

"That is in the works," Irvin said. "He has no interests in continuing to have his name associated with that property."


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