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  • Questions surround another woman


    ©St. Petersburg Times, published July 18, 1997

    To read more about Brenda Harris' position at the National Baptist Convention and see a photo, click here.
    NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The neighbors say their hosts introduced themselves as Brenda and Henry Harris.

    He was a traveling motivational speaker. She planned meetings and travel.

    The occasion was a social gathering this year at the Harris home in an upscale subdivision just south of Nashville. Couples from the neighborhood came to meet Brenda Harris, a woman who had bought and renovated a $340,000 house, and Henry.

    Fred and Phyllis Vogt, who live across the street, said Brenda told them that Henry was her fiance and that they happened to share the same surname already. In fact, "that's what drew us together," they recall her saying.

    Said Fred Vogt: "He was delightful. She was delightful."

    The Vogts haven't seen much of Henry Harris since that night, but they say he looked much like another Henry whose face has been in the news this week.

    That other Henry is Brenda Harris' boss, Henry J. Lyons, president of the 8.5-million member National Baptist Convention, and a married man with a congregation in St. Petersburg.

    In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, the Rev. Lyons strongly denied any romantic relationship with Brenda Harris.

    "Absolutely not," he said.

    The rumors of a romance -- rumors Lyons said he has heard himself -- are "really super ridiculous," he said, adding: "Honestly, there is none. Never has been. No. Not at all."

    Brenda Harris was unavailable for comment Thursday. But in brief interviews earlier, she said she was aware of speculation about her within the National Baptist Convention. She said it was not her business to worry about what people think of her.

    "It's my business to do as good a job as I possibly can for the convention," she said, "and I intend to do that as long as I'm given the privilege to work for them."

    Lyons recruited Brenda Harris from a convention planning job in San Diego and brought her to his organization's headquarters in Nashville. He provided her with office space there to serve as executive director of his organization's office of conventions and meetings. He assured her that the National Baptist Convention would help her buy a house.

    Before Harris purchased her home, Lyons also helped her rent a $1,500-a-month brick home in a Nashville subdivision. He co-signed the lease and supplied a written guarantee from the National Baptist Convention that her rent would be paid, according to the homeowners and their property manager. The homeowners also remember getting mail addressed to a man after Harris moved out.

    The name on those letters, to their best recollection, was Dr. Henry Lyons.

    "A doctor! So that's how she can afford this house," homeowner Janet Lytle remembers thinking.

    Lyons acknowledged that he and the National Baptist Convention helped Harris secure housing, but he said the assistance was necessary to persuade a talented professional to leave a good, secure job. He said the assistance was no different than that many major companies offer senior managers.

    "We were asking her to move (to Nashville from San Diego) to take us on," he said. "We had to sweeten the pot."

    Lyons said Harris has done excellent work. Before she started working for the convention in 1995, "our convention reputation was kind of suffering," he said. "A lot of folks didn't want us to come to their city."

    Harris has turned that around, he said. "This lady is a fantastic meeting planner. We are quite fortunate to have her."

    But in Brenda Harris' neighborhood, some residents thought Lyons and Harris were more than colleagues.

    Some neighbors think they have met Lyons at a social gathering, the April 5 party at the Harris house. A local women's association newsletter notifying neighbors of the planned "just desserts" social at Harris' house advised: "Bring your favorite dessert, your significant other, and join in the fun at the Spring event, along with your hosts Brenda and Henry."

    Neighbors who came to that social event say the house had been remodeled extensively, with hardwood floors, a sauna and stunning mirrors. The man who installed the hardwood floors, Taylor White, said he recalled Harris referring to a future husband.

    "In casual conversation she called him her fiance," White said. "I said, "What does he do,' and she said, "Oh, he's a motivational speaker.' "

    Theresa Willis, a next-door neighbor to Brenda Harris, immediately identified a photo of Lyons as the man who co-hosted Brenda's April 5 party but said she knew little of their relationship.

    Willis praised Brenda Harris, the newly elected president of their women's association, calling her the first person to bring meals to a grieving family when there is a death in the neighborhood. "She's a wonderful neighbor, very compassionate," she said.

    Other neighbors shared that opinion. One woman burst into tears after looking at a newspaper photo that she thought was of Brenda's husband Henry, only to learn that it accompanied a story about the Rev. Lyons.

    Arranging conventions

    Brenda Harris holds an important post at the National Baptist Convention

    She is responsible for setting up several major conferences a year for the National Baptist Convention. The conferences, attended by up to 60,000 delegates, can bring $45-million or more in spending to the host cities, and Harris has used this leverage to win rebates and other forms of payments from potential host cities.

    "I'm not asking for everything free, but I ask the city to participate in bringing us there," Harris told Crain's Chicago Business in March 1996. "We recognize the financial impact we bring. Most (cities) negotiate with us and work out a very productive financial package for us."

    The Office of Convention Development generated $235,955 in revenues for the fiscal year ending May 31, 1996, according to the group's audit. It spent about $200,000.

    Lyons said he met Harris in 1994, about the time he was elected president of the National Baptist Convention. That year, the convention held a conference in San Diego, where Harris served as national sales manager for the Convention & Visitors Bureau. She assisted in the arrangements for the conference.

    "I was extremely impressed," Lyons said of Harris, who was named "Salesperson of the Year" by the San Diego tourism industry in 1993 and who was credited with persuading several major black organizations to hold conventions in San Diego.

    Lyons said he sought out Harris for a job with the convention and signed her to a contract in September 1995 as an "independent contractor" for the convention.

    At first, Harris worked for her new employer from California. But in late 1995 she moved to Nashville, home of its headquarters, and began looking for a house. Harris wanted to rent a house in a new subdivision that owners Kurtz and Janet Lytle were vacating for a year.

    But their property manager, Thomas Buida, balked when he learned that Harris had filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in 1991, listing some $48,000 in unpaid debts.

    (In 1980, Harris filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection in Nashville.)

    The Lytles said the National Baptist Convention then provided written assurances that her rent would be paid. Buida said he had a written guarantee signed by convention chairman A. H. Newman in his files, along with a lease co-signed by Lyons. He declined to release copies.

    Lyons said he agreed in Harris' employment contract to help her secure housing in the Nashville area, but he did not recall co-signing her lease. "I would have to look at that. I don't remember doing that. I could have."

    In May 1996, Brenda Harris bought a large, two-story brick house at 1113 Navaho Drive in Brentwood, in a neighborhood of winding streets, rolling hills and large, professionally tended lawns.

    She paid $340,000 for it, with a cash payment of $102,000 and a $238,000 mortgage, according to county records.

    The purchase came four months after a resolution, dated Jan. 23, 1996, in which the National Baptist Convention promised "any financial assistance in the form of a guarantor, or co-signator toward a loan" to help Harris acquire a home. According to the resolution, the assistance was "not to exceed the amount of $300,000."

    The resolution bears the signatures of Lyons and two other convention officials, chairman Newman and Roscoe D. Cooper Jr., general secretary. The resolution states that it was adopted after a unanimous vote by the convention board, who number about 350. The board met that day in Mobile, Ala.

    "We voted to do it if it was necessary," Lyons said.

    The Rev. Samuel Austin, a member of the board at the meeting, said he recalled the resolution passing without any debate. But several other board members contacted by the Times -- including some allied to Lyons -- had no recollection of voting on such a resolution.

    "That's news to me," said the Rev. Fred Crouther, chairman of the board's finance and budget committee. Crouther, though, said he may not have been in the room when the resolution was voted on.

    "Nothing like that was ever brought to the convention," said the Rev. Jasper Williams, a member of the board until February, when he resigned to protest Lyons' leadership.

    Williams also said he didn't attend every meeting, but he doubted such a resolution would have passed without a debate.

    "The whole convention would have erupted," he said. "I don't know anything about it, and I doubt seriously if you could find any members of our convention who do. If it had happened, I would have heard. We would never have accepted that."

    Lyons said that in the end, Harris did not require any financial assistance from either him or the convention.

    "We never had to step up to bat. There was no money and no credit used," Lyons said.

    Harris also said she did not receive any financial assistance to buy the house.

    But tax records show that Harris has received at least some financial support. Her 1996 property taxes, which came to $2,124, were paid by the National African American Church Council, an arm of the convention.

    Lyons said two other people who work for convention organizations have received "similar" help with housing since he became president: Walter Cade, executive director of the Baptist World Center, and E. L. Thomas, interim executive director of the Sunday School Publishing Board.

    In Cade's case, Lyons said, he was offered use of a Nashville house that was owned by the women's auxiliary of the National Baptist Convention. The house, said Lyons, was an incentive for Cade to move to Nashville from his home in Kansas City.

    Located a few blocks from the World Center, the house was purchased for $95,000 well before Cade was hired, recalled Mary Ross, the former president of the women's auxiliary. The house was intended to be used as a counseling and conference center for students who needed help, Ross said.

    Lyons said the convention assisted Thomas in leasing or purchasing a "nice apartment or condo." He could not recall details and Thomas could not be reached.

    Travel businesses

    Harris, 47, grew up in California and still owns a house there in Oceanside. A 1991 story about her in a San Diego newspaper described her as an "all everything" high school student who gave up scholarship offers to get married at the age of 18, a mistake she since has encouraged other college-bound kids to avoid

    She married again in 1988, to Percy Myers, a San Diego man who says they shared a house worth far less than the one she occupies today. They parted in 1990, a separation followed by an amicable divorce. Myers remembers her as a "beautiful, very artistic, very innovative" woman who had a strong sense of direction and a one-person meeting and travel planning business.

    In 1991, she filed for bankruptcy. Many of her debts appeared to be related to her travel business, bankruptcy records show.

    But Harris appears to have made a rapid recovery. The same year, she emerged as a national sales manager for the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau.

    In 1994 she was chosen by the San Diego Union-Tribune as one of "100 African-American role model honorees."

    Harris also set up a minority internship program that placed teenagers in hospitality jobs in San Diego, and she founded the San Diego Association of Black Hospitality Professionals, according to a local business journal.

    Harris was earning a salary of about $50,000 a year when she left for the National Baptist Convention, said Reint Reinders, president of the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau.

    It is unclear how much money Harris makes working for the National Baptist Convention and affiliates.

    The convention's proposed budget for 1996-97 shows that the executive director for meeting and planning -- apparently a reference to Harris -- receives a stipend of $35,000.

    But Harris also earns money from the convention by operating a travel agency. At her home, Harris has a business telephone line for Harris Travel Management Associates, which callers learn is the official travel management company for the National Baptist Convention and for Revelation Corp., a company Lyons created.

    The convention's annual report lists: "H.T.M.A." as receiving $6,968 in 1995 for entertainment expenses from a meeting in Birmingham.

    Harris is not listed in the Yellow Pages as a travel agent, and Williamson County officials could not find a business license for her at her new home.

    Harris said she has a contractual relationship with the National Baptist Convention, her largest client. She said she has other clients and business offices in San Diego, but declined to name any or identify the office location.

    Her income from the convention, Harris said, is "none of your business."
    -- Times staff writers Eric Deggans and Waveney Ann Moore contributed to this report, as did researchers Kitty Bennett, John Martin, Barbara Oliver and Carolyn Hardnett.

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