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  • Vote of confidence boosts Lyons

    DAVID BARSTOW and MONICA DAVEY, Times Staff Writers

    ©St. Petersburg Times, published September 2, 1997

    DENVER -- The Rev. Henry J. Lyons got a boost Monday when the National Baptist Convention USA Inc.'s executive committee, a small core of the organization's leaders, gave him a vote of confidence in his role as president.

    Lyons got a bigger boost when the convention's special investigative commission announced it would need more time to complete an examination of his personal and financial dealings.

    The commission's chairman, the Rev. E.V. Hill, said the convention needs tighter financial oversight, but not a new president. And by late Monday, it appeared the commission planned to drop the investigation altogether.

    But Lyons' toughest test came late Monday afternoon when he addressed the convention's board of directors and hundreds of other convention leaders and found himself facing skepticism and open derision.

    When a day of political intrigue and tense power struggles ended, it was still unclear whether the presidency Lyons, the 55-year-old leader of the country's largest black religious group, would survive the week.

    During the packed meeting of 1,400 convention leaders Monday afternoon, Lyons apologized. Speaking in a measured, controlled voice, he asked for forgiveness. He acknowledged a litany of mistakes. He said he wanted to clear his name.

    His remarks were met coldly. There was little applause, plenty of heckling.

    "I don't need to be heckled," Lyons said. Repeatedly, he asked to be heard. "Please, give me your attention."

    At one point, Lyons spoke of his wife.

    "Which wife?" a woman in the crowd called out. Another woman shouted: "I forgive you, but I don't believe you."

    Other people snickered as Lyons attempted to explain or rebut each of the recent allegations that have crippled his presidency of the National Baptist Convention. Allegations about his treatment of women. Fancy homes and cars. Large commissions on convention deals.

    Lyons reminded the audience of his accomplishments: how he rescued a financially crippled organization, how he raised $2-million for black colleges, how he helped reduce convention debts and increase revenues from donors.

    Applause was scattered, and never sustained.

    After his remarks, members of the audience were given a chance to speak. A few said Lyons should be forgiven. Overall, the tone was unfriendly. At least eight people called on Lyons to step aside.

    The Rev. John Ringgold, a top convention official from San Diego, recalled the story of Adam. Even though God forgave Adam, he was expelled from the Garden of Eden.

    A woman from Milwaukee defended Bernice Edwards, the convicted embezzler from Milwaukee whom Lyons hired for a top convention post. Edwards and Lyons have shared a $700,000 house in Tierra Verde, a time-share condominium in Lake Tahoe, a Rolls-Royce and a checking account.

    The woman, who said she knew Edwards, disputed Lyons' contention that Edwards is a wealthy woman who needed his help to invest her money. Edwards, the woman said, has never been rich.

    "Go girl!" another woman yelled.

    As Lyons entered the room shortly after 2 p.m., gentle organ music played. He made his way to the center of the dais escorted by supporters and security officers.

    There was no applause from the waiting audience. Many were busy reading anti-Lyons literature distributed by his opponents. The Lyons camp tried to prevent this. They demanded that hotel officials stop anyone who tried to distribute "unauthorized" fliers at the entrances to the ballroom. Hotel officials did their best, but to little avail.

    Interest in the meeting was intense. The ballroom soon filled beyond its lawful capacity, forcing security officials to evict dozens of Baptists who could not find a seat.

    Reporters were banished from the ballroom, and then even from the ballroom level of the hotel. A mass of anxious convention members gathered at the top of the escalators leading to the ballroom.

    The crowd grew even larger. Worried about a fire hazard, hotel officials closed off access to that floor as well.

    Earlier, the convention's investigative commission concluded that Lyons did not have convention approval to open a controversial account at a St. Petersburg bank. Lyons deposited money from speaking fees, donations and business deals into the Baptist Builder Fund.

    "We found that he did not have the authorization of the board of directors to open such an account," said Hill, a Los Angeles pastor who led the commission.

    The commission recommended that "no other accounts will be opened by the president or any other officer of the NBC without full executive board or board approval," Hill said.

    Second, it accepted Lyons' assertion that he "had nothing to do with and no knowledge of" the cashing of convention checks at a check-cashing agency in St. Petersburg. Hill said Lyons thinks his name was forged on documents used to cash the checks. The FBI has been asked to investigate, he said.

    Third, it concluded that Lyons made a business deal with the Loewen Group in which the white-owned funeral-home company donated $100,000 to the National Baptist Convention in exchange for Lyons' help in getting convention members to use the company's services.

    The investigative commission recommended that he stop making deals until the convention establishes guidelines for them. It doesn't have any guidelines now.

    "Dr. Lyons, in the opinion of the commission, has broken no (convention) law," Hill said. "Where there is no law, there can be no transgression."

    Finally, the commission recommended that the convention hire a full-time finance director.

    Hill said the investigative commission so far has answered only 20 of the 100 or so questions it had for Lyons. The 80 unanswered questions are about "the house and the ring and what have you." He said the commission, or perhaps a newly appointed body, will keep investigating.

    That appeared unlikely later Monday, however. A group of convention members agreed the convention should drop the matter, Hill said. Unless he hears otherwise from Lyons, Hill said, the investigation will not be completed.

    The investigative commission was appointed by the executive committee, most of whose members are Lyons appointees. But Hill said the commission did not go easy on Lyons. "We went straight to the heart of the matter," he said.

    Hill acknowledged that "some people may want Lyons to step down so they can step up," but said he saw no need for Lyons to resign.

    "We don't have a ministry of condemnation. We have a ministry of reconciliation," he said. "White people don't understand that in their institutions, so they pull down their Bakkers and their Swaggarts."

    Hill criticized the media for their coverage of Lyons' story, saying it was "very unethical" for reporters to publish stories about the investigative commission's work before the members were ready to speak publicly. "Any information printed before this time was not official and was ill-gotten," he said.

    If O.J. Simpson had been treated as Lyons has, Hill said, he would have been sent to the electric chair before his trial.

    It was a day of political intrigue and tense plotting -- both by Lyons partisans and by those within the convention who covet his powerful position.

    Early in the day, Lyons and the convention's executive committee heard a report from the investigative commission during a tense, three-hour, closed-door meeting in the Marriott City Center, the headquarters hotel. Hotel and convention security people wearing earphones and stern looks patrolled the lobby; outsiders were barred from approaching the doors of the meeting room.

    An elderly woman who said she had worked for the convention for more than a decade tried to stand her ground.

    "I have a right to be here," she told three burly security guards who had her surrounded. They hustled her away anyway.

    At least seven Denver police officers set up a command post in a nearby salon. Asked why the police were at the hotel, a sergeant smiled and said, "Just in case."

    One pastor who attended the meeting said the executive committee asked Lyons a series of questions about his early July trip to Nigeria -- the trip he was on when police say his wife, Deborah, set fire to the Tierra Verde home Lyons owns with Bernice Edwards.

    The executive committee wanted to know why Lyons had traveled to a foreign country without informing the Rev. William Harvey, head of foreign missions for the convention. Lyons said the purpose of the trip was to build a business relationship between Nigeria and the convention, the pastor said.

    At one point, Lyons himself spoke of the convention's urgent need to raise money to pay for the week of activities in Denver. He said the convention has spent nearly all of the $150,000 it collected in advance registration fees.

    In another sign of financial hardship, Lyons has urged more members to purchase tickets for the convention banquet. Corporate sponsors who normally would pay part of the costs have stayed away because of the controversy over Lyons.

    In the end, the executive committee decided to give Lyons a vote of confidence.

    But while Lyons met with the executive committee, many of his chief opponents held court in the hotel lobby two floors up.

    In one corner, the Rev. C.A.W. Clark, the elderly convention powerbroker from Texas, sat with the Rev. T.J. Jemison, the former convention president.

    During the election in 1994 to pick Jemison's successor, candidate Lyons ran largely on a platform of bringing financial accountability to the convention. He accused Jemison of mishandling convention funds.

    "He did his best to destroy me, but instead he's destroyed himself," Jemison said.

    Clark, 82, cradling a cane between his legs, continued his criticism of Lyons even as well-wishers stopped to greet him.

    "I regret that he would force us to take him out instead of going out on his own," Clark said. "You have no right to ask for forgiveness until first you acknowledge all of your wrongs."

    A few steps away stood the man Lyons defeated in 1994, the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson of New York. Richardson supporters here distributed 7,000 anti-Lyons fliers, and Richardson worked the lobby like a Chicago alderman, shaking as many hands and whispering in as many ears as he could.

    But opposition to Lyons often appeared fragmented and disorganized.

    One group scheduled and advertised an anti-Lyons rally for Monday morning. Only one person showed up, the Rev. J.J. Barfield of Philadelphia, who blamed "miscommunication" and "the intimidation factor" for the light turnout.

    "It seems he may survive this week in Denver," he added.

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