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The Rev. Henry Lyons


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Lyons' wife asks mayor for help


©St. Petersburg Times, published January 7, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG -- The developers behind a controversial housing project initiated by the Rev. Henry J. Lyons have been doing all they can lately to distance themselves from the embattled pastor.

Just as city leaders are debating how to sever their ties to the project -- gently or harshly -- Lyons' wife on Tuesday provided a vivid reminder of Lyons' connection.

In a letter, Deborah Lyons beseeched Mayor David Fischer to help keep the project afloat and give the developers an opportunity to pay back a $300,000 city loan. She reminded Fischer of the political support he has long sought and received from Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church, one of the city's largest black churches.

"You came to Bethel Metropolitan several times prior to the election and after being re-elected. We are the same group of people that you stood before. WE have not changed," Mrs. Lyons wrote in the letter Fischer received Tuesday.

The letter highlights the political headache that city leaders, especially Fischer, face as they try to extricate themselves from the project tied to a political heavyweight-turned-political pariah.

Mrs. Lyons reminded Fischer that she voted for him in his last election and "looked beyond the media opinions and looked at a man who has been fair and just in dealing with people, the longstanding leadership, the history and the facts."

Henry Lyons, who heads the National Baptist Convention USA, initiated the 84-bed Bethel Village assisted living facility development and successfully lobbied Fischer to approve the $300,000 loan. But he has since resigned from the board of the non-profit development group, Bethel Adult Care Inc. The board now is made up of deacons at Bethel Metropolitan.

The no-interest, $300,000 city loan enabled Bethel Adult Care Inc. to buy 2.37 acres next to Bethel Metropolitan off 34th Street S and 26th Avenue. The loan agreement required to developers to have broken ground by Dec. 20 or risk foreclosure by the city.

Fischer approved the loan before Lyons became the target of criminal investigations into his financial dealings. The scrutiny into Lyons' personal and public life started in July after Deborah Lyons set fire to a Tierra Verde house co-owned by her husband and another woman. She pleaded guilty to arson and was sentenced to five years' probation.

Fischer said Tuesday afternoon he had not yet seen Mrs. Lyons' letter and was "somewhat" surprised she would write him. In fact, the mayor's recommendation for severing ties seems to do what Mrs. Lyons wants.

Rather than promptly foreclose on the property and effectively make the development poison for prospective lenders, Fischer recommends putting the property in escrow and giving the Bethel Adult Care nine months to come up with its $5-million financing package and pay off the city.

That offers the best potential for the city to get its money back reasonably quickly, Fischer said.

City Council members are scheduled to vote on the issue Thursday, and based on a workshop Tuesday the vote looks too close to call.

"The project was a good project until the scandal (surrounding Lyons) came," said City Council Chairman Ernest Fillyau.

That scandal is impossible to separate from Bethel Village, however. For one thing, the developers' application for mortgage insurance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development included a forged document from the National Baptist Convention pledging up to $750,000.

The developers withdrew that document after the Times wrote about it. It is a federal crime to submit false information in applications for HUD financing, and HUD officials referred the matter to the Inspector General's Office. The developers have since replaced that financial pledge with a line of credit from bank, backed by a mortgage on the church.

The clouds over Lyons and Bethel Village make some council members uncomfortable with doing anything but foreclosing and cutting their ties as simply as possible.

Under Fischer's recommendation, council member Larry Williams complained, "The message that we're sending is that a federal application has been falsified, and we're finding a way to work that out. I don't think that's a good message."

Added council member Kathleen Ford: "This one just kind of smelled from the beginning."

She, Williams and Bob Kersteen appeared staunchly in favor of foreclosing on Bethel Adult Care, and council member Connie Kone appeared leaning that way.

Strongly supporting Fischer's recommendation for a more amicable divorce from Bethel Adult Care were Fillyau and Frank Peterman. Bea Griswold and Jay Lasita seemed to be leaning that way. "This is about making lemonade out of lemons," Lasita said. "None of us want to be here in this position."

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