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Rev. Lyons, Edwards plead innocent to all charges
Photo of Rev. Lyons
Rev. Henry J. Lyons, second from right, is surrounded by his attorneys as he pleads "not guilty on every charge" at his arraignment Monday in Largo. [Times photo: Cherie Diez]

By MONICA DAVEY and DAVID BARSTOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 17, 2006


LARGO -- He sat on one side of the courtroom.

She sat on the other.

Once, they were close friends who grew rich together off their labors for the National Baptist Convention USA Inc.

But on Monday, during their first court appearance as co-defendants, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons and Bernice Edwards ignored each other.

Not a word, a wave, a wink.

Lyons whispered to his wife. Edwards conferred with her lawyers. They sat a dozen feet apart but might as well have been on different planets.

Then, in a TV moment, Lyons rose from his seat and stepped to a lectern to answer charges of grand theft and racketeering. F. Lee Bailey, an old hand at court theater, popped up from his seat and took his client's side. Lyons' three other lawyers did the same, forming a phalanx of legal protection.

"Your honor, I plead not guilty on every charge," Lyons said. The sound bite fizzled: Someone forgot to turn on the courtroom microphones.

For her part, Edwards chose a lower profile. Her attorney rose briefly to enter an innocent plea on her behalf. Edwards remained in the front row, attentive and poised, and, from all outward appearances, isolated from the entourage of church members who joined Lyons at the hearing.

Lyons, the convention's president, and Edwards, a former employee, were arrested last month and accused of siphoning millions of dollars into secret bank accounts. Prosecutors allege the pair used the money to buy diamonds, designer clothes, luxury cars and a $700,000 waterfront home on Tierra Verde.

On Monday, Lyons and Edwards waived their legal right to be tried within six months of their arrests. Pinellas-Pasco Chief Circuit Judge Susan F. Schaeffer set their trial to begin Jan. 4, 1999.

In giving up their right to a speedy trial, attorneys for the pair said they expect the case to be lengthy and expensive. Anthony Battaglia, an attorney for Lyons, said they must contact more than 40 witnesses, some of them from out-of-state. The trial itself is likely to last a month, said Denis de Vlaming, another Lyons attorney.

For Lyons, the January trial date has political and legal ramifications.

When the convention holds its annual meeting in September, the charges against Lyons likely will remain unresolved, opening the possibility of a challenge to his leadership. Lyons survived such a challenge during last fall's meeting, and secured a resolution from the convention board absolving him of any wrongdoing. His attorneys have said that resolution is a cornerstone in their defense, but a renewed power struggle could threaten that resolution.

The January trial date also means Lyons will be fighting prosecutors even as he is fighting to be re-elected to a second term. The election takes place in September 1999.

The timing of the trial also makes it likely a separate federal investigation will be completed by the time state charges are resolved.

A federal grand jury has been meeting since last year, examining Lyons' income taxes and forged documents used to secure financing for projects in which Lyons had an interest.

As of Friday, it was unclear who would represent Edwards. But Monday, her legal team was in place: Bill Jung, 39, a former federal prosecutor in Tampa and Miami; Tony Black, 41, a former accountant with experience in commercial litigation, and Laurin Bryant, 31, a former public defender.

Unlike earlier court proceedings, Lyons and his legal team said almost nothing after they left Courtroom 1 in the criminal courts complex.

Lyons paused to hug and greet a few church members. Asked how he felt, Lyons had a one word reply. "Tired," he said quietly.

Then the Rev. Charles Williams, public relations director for the National Baptist Convention, took firm hold of Lyons' arm and rushed him past a throng of reporters and photographers.

They were followed into an elevator by a dozen church members, including Deborah Lyons and her daughter, Vonda. On the trip to the first floor they joked about the media crush, then broke past another line of waiting cameras.

Outside, Lyons was hustled through the parking lot, a man on each side holding him by his arms. He ignored all questions. Mrs. Lyons trailed behind, struggling to keep up in her high heels. She pushed past a reporter to regain her hold of her husband's shoulder.

"It's love," she said, smiling and rushing on.

Even the normally loquacious F. Lee Bailey said little.

Asked why he had flown in to attend a simple arraignment that could have been handled with a written plea, Bailey snapped, "I didn't. There's much important business to conduct."

He didn't say another word.

As Lyons' entourage made its exit, Edwards stayed put in the front row of the courtroom, a lawyer on each side. A third lawyer went to bring their car to the entrance of the criminal complex.

The Milwaukee woman, a convicted embezzler, spoke only once, when the judge asked her whether she understood that she was giving up her right to a quick trial. She rose and spoke calmly: "That is correct, your honor." Then she smiled.

After the hearing, Edwards, who has remained elusive through months of allegations, shook a reporter's hand. "I have no comment," she said cheerfully. "Have a good day." She smiled.

As she left the room, Edwards was surrounded by television cameras and reporters shouting questions.

"What do you have to say about the charges against you?"

"Will you sell the Tierra Verde house?"

"They say you bought $60,000 worth of clothes -- is that true?"

Edwards marched on, silent. The cameras backed down a hall, into an elevator, down a sidewalk. A faint smile on her face, Edwards stepped into the waiting car.


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