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  • To buy house, Lyons used church account

    Photo of Lyon's Tierra Verde house Pastor backed loan with lease to Baptists. But who really signed it?
    A check drawn on a National Baptist Convention USA account paid utilities for the Tierra Verde house that Lyons owns with Bernice Edwards. The account was designed to pay off debt on the convention headquarters. (Photos Times files)

    By TIM ROCHE, DAVID BARSTOW, STEPHEN NOHLGREN,
    MONICA DAVEY

    ©St. Petersburg Times, published August 14, 1997


    ST. PETERSBURG -- Despite his statements to the contrary, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons paid at least $90,000 of the down payment for a Tierra Verde home from National Baptist Convention USA Inc. accounts.

    To secure a loan for the $700,000 house, Lyons also presented a lease that said the National Baptist Convention would pay $4,000 a month to rent the house back from Lyons.

    The lease bears the signatures of two Baptist Convention leaders, but at least one says he never heard of the document. That discrepancy is drawing the interest of authorities investigating a fire at the waterfront house.

    National Baptist Convention checks, bearing Lyons' signature, also were used to pay water and sewer bills for the Tierra Verde house. One of those came from Operation Freedom, a fund that is supposed to help pay off debt on the convention's national headquarters in Nashville, Tenn.

    At least two convention officials have said Lyons does not have permission to spend convention money on his own real estate deals.

    "That," the Rev. Fred Crouther said, "is a no-no."

    Crouther, third vice president of the convention and chairman of the convention's finance and budget committee, said in an interview last month:

    "I can assure you we do not have any knowledge about that," referring to Lyons' use of convention accounts to purchase the Tierra Verde house. "I assure you, you could go down the line (of other convention leaders) and no one would know about that."

    The Rev. A.L. Owens, second vice president of the convention, also said last month it would be improper for Lyons to use convention funds to buy himself a home.

    "We didn't even know the house existed, so therefore we couldn't know anything about using convention funds (to buy it) if that's the case," Owens said. The Rev. Henry Lyons

    Lyons did not return phone calls Wednesday.

    In his only public statement on the matter, Lyons said on July 11: "There has never been any money taken from this church or from the National Baptist Convention to secure the loan on the house."

    Lyons has told members of his church that Bernice V. Edwards, the convicted embezzler from Milwaukee with whom he owns the house, supplied the money for it.

    Grady Irvin, Lyons' attorney, declined to comment Wednesday on use of money from convention accounts. "Those are private, and in that regard I have no comment."

    The convention's constitution and bylaws allow Lyons discretion in spending convention funds, Irvin said.

    "I do have concern that your facts are complete," Irvin said. He would not elaborate.

    The down payment

    In late 1995, Edwards got her first look at the four-bedroom, 10,000-square-foot house on Tierra Verde. She told the owner she adored its views of Boca Ciega Bay

    She and Henry Lyons offered $700,000 for the house, and the owners accepted. They paid less than $1,000 in earnest money. A short time later, that amount was increased to $35,000. The money was held by their real estate agency, Prudential Florida Realty, until the closing.

    Edwards originally was listed as a buyer, along with Lyons, in paperwork to obtain the loan. A month later, Edwards, who has poor credit history, was dropped from the contract, according to transaction records.

    In the search for financing, Lyons offered varying reasons for wanting to buy the house. At first, he said he wanted a second home for his own use. But loan officials at World Savings and Loan rejected this deal because it made no sense that someone would buy a second home only a few miles from their primary residence.

    Lyons then said the house would be used to entertain dignitaries and high-ranking officials with the National Baptist Convention. World Savings agreed to finance the house after Lyons said it would be a "national guest house" and furnished a lease agreement between himself and the National Baptist Convention.

    World Savings gave Lyons a $455,000 mortgage. Lyons and Edwards appeared together to close the deal in the offices of St. Petersburg lawyer Seymour A. Gordon on March 1, 1996. Gordon who represented the sellers, declined to comment. Lyons made the down payment with three checks:

    A cashier's check for $90,000 from United Bank in St. Petersburg. Listed as "remitter" in the upper left corner of check #7157 is the National Baptist Convention USA.

    A bank check for $136,000 from Guaranty Bank of Milwaukee. No remitter is named on check #0807458.

    A check for $35,000 from the escrow account for Prudential Florida Realty, the agency representing Lyons and Edwards in the transaction. Check #002237 is drawn from a NationsBank account.

    The same day as the closing, Lyons signed a quit-claim deed making Edwards a joint owner of the house. Lyons was listed as a single man in those records, but World Savings was aware that he was married. In fact, the company was instructed not to call Lyons at his home or send any documents there.

    On July 6, Lyons' wife set fire to the house. She told authorities that she had discovered her husband owned it along with Edwards and that they were having an affair. She later changed her story.

    In private conversations since then, Lyons has said none of the convention's money was used to buy the Tierra Verde house. Edwards supplied the money, Lyons has told his church, convention members, investigators. He did nothing more than lend his good credit rating to a friend who needed a shelter for a large amount of money she had inherited, he said.

    In Milwaukee, Edwards has a disastrous financial history, one that includes hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid bills and four trips to bankruptcy court.

    Edwards, 40, also was convicted in 1993 for embezzling $60,000 in federal funds from an alternative high school she directed. She was sentenced to three years' probation, including strict provisions related to her finances.

    She was told to open up all of her finances to her probation officer. She was required to close all checking accounts and not to open any new ones. She was barred from signing most checks or opening up new lines of credit without permission from her probation officer.

    Probation officials in Milwaukee say they cannot comment on Edwards' case or whether she reported a large inheritance or sudden wealth in the years before her probation period ended.

    It ended in January 1997 -- 10 months after the Tierra Verde house was purchased.

    Though Lyons has told members of his church that Edwards came into a large sum of money after her husband died in 1996, records in Milwaukee County are unclear.

    It is not even certain whether Edwards was married to Jesse Douglas Jones, who died of liver cancer June 10, 1996. Some documents, including his death certificate, describe her as his spouse. Others, including a police report, say she was single.

    In Milwaukee County probate court, there is no record that he left an estate. Only residents with less than $10,000 in assets are not required to file estates there, probate officials in Wisconsin said.

    Still, records do show Jones' mother, Mary Ellen Strong, gave her 1987 Rolls Royce to Edwards and Lyons. Strong, in her 70s, could not be reached for comment. Strong's other son has said Strong is not supplying Edwards with sums of money.

    Officials at Guaranty Bank in Milwaukee, meanwhile, say their records have been subpoenaed. A cashier's check from that bank was used to pay for the Tierra Verde house, but Edwards has no account there, Guaranty Bank chairman Gerald Levy said.

    The lease

    To help secure the loan for the Tierra Verde house, Lyons furnished a lease agreement between himself and the National Baptist Convention. It was intended as an additional assurance that Lyons would be able to make his mortgage payments

    On this basis, World Savings officials agreed to finance the place as an investment property.

    The one-year lease, dated March 1, 1996, committed the convention to pay Lyons $4,000 a month to rent the house. A standard, one-page business document, the lease names Henry J. Lyons as landlord, the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. as tenant.

    The lease bears the seal of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. It also bears the signatures of the Rev. A.H. Newman, convention chairman, and the Rev. Roscoe D. Cooper Jr., general secretary.

    Authorities are looking into the authenticity of those signatures.

    Newman, reached at his Richmond, Calif., church on Wednesday, said he had never approved a lease. He had not heard of it either, he said.

    "I didn't know nothing about it," he said. "I had nothing to do with it."

    Asked whether he told investigators that he did not sign it, he said: "I told investigators I didn't know nothing about it."

    Asked whether he was upset about it, Newman ended the phone call. "I'm not upset. I don't want to say anymore about it."

    Cooper, of Richmond, Va., did not return repeated phone calls.

    Questions about falsified signatures have been raised with another convention document bearing the names of Cooper and Newman.

    A 1996 convention resolution promised $300,000 of financial assistance for Brenda Harris, a convention employee who has been romantically linked to Lyons. Some convention members have said they do not recall taking a vote on the matter at a meeting on Jan. 23, 1996.

    On the resolution, the signatures of Cooper and Newman appear significantly different from those on another document. Neither man has commented on the discrepancy.

    The utilities

    Twice, water and sewer bills for the Tierra Verde house were paid with checks drawn on convention accounts, according to microfilm records provided by the Pinellas County Utilities Department. Lyons' signature is on both checks

    On July 28, 1997 -- more than two weeks after he denied using church funds to secure the mortgage -- Lyons paid a $79.80 bill with a check drawn on the convention's Operation Freedom fund.

    According to the convention's latest annual report, Operation Freedom "is a dynamic plan for eliminating the $4.5-million mortgage on the National Baptist World Center (BWC), our Convention headquarters in Nashville."

    Church members were asked to contribute $200 each and, in return, would have their names engraved on a "Freedom Wall" at the center.

    "All brothers and sisters are urged to join us in breaking the chains of financial bondage by making a contribution to Operation Freedom," Lyons wrote in the report.

    On May 12, 1997, Lyons paid $75.30 for two months of water and service with a check drawn on the convention's Baptist Builder Fund.

    The Baptist Builder Fund, which Lyons maintains at United Bank in St. Petersburg, is not listed in the convention's most recent annual report or audit. Half a dozen convention leaders have said they did not know the fund existed until the recent controversy.

    Other checks from the fund were used to help buy a 5.56-carat diamond ring for Edwards and to pay for two $500 memberships in a city club in Nashville for Lyons and Harris.

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