The Rev. Henry Lyons
Got a news tip?
Lyons has secret fund
By DAVID BARSTOW, Times Staff Writer
In March 1996, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons filled out an application to join the exclusive Nashville City Club, which features complimentary breakfasts, cigar and wine tastings, a lecture series and limousine service.
Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., indicated he was seeking an individual membership to the club, a handsome retreat of mahogany and marble on the top floor of a Nashville bank building.
That same month, Brenda Harris, a top-level employee of the convention who introduced Lyons to neighbors as her fiance, also applied for an individual membership to the club.
Both included wine tasting and dancing among their personal interests.
The initiation fee: $500 per person.
Days later, Lyons signed a check for $1,000 made payable to the Nashville City Club. The check came from an account held in the name of the "National Baptist Convention USA Inc. Baptist Builder Fund."
And therein lies the mystery: To many of the convention's board members, and in the convention's two major financial documents, the Baptist Builder Fund does not exist.
The 1996 annual report of the convention is 461 pages long and includes financial statements, budget information, meeting minutes and descriptions of fund-raising drives.
There is no mention of a "Baptist Builder Fund."
The 1996 audit of the convention is 86 pages long and includes detailed financial information about the organization and its various branches. The audit lists 12 banks across the country that hold deposits for the convention.
It too does not contain a word about the Baptist Builder Fund, nor does it list the bank where the account is held, the United Bank and Trust in St. Petersburg.
Joe Edmondson Jr., the Nashville accountant who signed the audit, declined to say whether his firm examined any records related to the Baptist Builder Fund at the United Bank.
"That's getting into confidential client information," he said.
The Rev. Fred Crouther is the third vice president of the National Baptist Convention and chairman of the organization'sbudget and finance committee. When first questioned this week, Crouther said he had never heard of the Baptist Builder Fund.
"I don't have anything in the budget like that," he said. "I don't have that category in my budget."
He asked for time to check with other officers of the convention. A day later, Crouther said he still had no idea what the Baptist Builder Fund is, how it is used, or what money goes into it. "I've checked with all my colleagues on the (convention) staff -- all the vice presidents and the treasurer -- and they know nothing about it," he said.
A half-dozen current or former members of the convention's board of directors also said they had never heard of the Baptist Builder Fund.
"I'm not aware of it," said the Rev. Samuel Austin of New York.
"I don't recall anything about that," said the Rev. A.L. Owens of Ohio.
"I have no direct knowledge of reports being given under that heading," said the Rev. Ezekiel Bey of New Jersey.
"I've never heard of the Baptist Builder Fund," said the Rev. Robert Scott Jones of Pennsylvania, also listed in convention documents as a member of the budget and finance committee.
"To my knowledge, it has never been mentioned, and I've been to every one of the board meetings," said the Rev. John Ringgold of California.
It is unclear how much money has passed through the Baptist Builder Fund, where it came from, or where it went.
Lyons did not respond to requests for comment about the fund.
His attorney, Grady C. Irvin Jr., was provided with written questions about the fund Thursday morning. Eleven hours later, Irvin said he could not respond to any of the questions.
"I'm not familiar with the Baptist Builder Fund," he said.
Is his client familiar with the fund?
"I've not had an opportunity to ask himabout the Baptist Builder Fund," Irvin replied.
"He's been unavailable today." "Baptist Builders' ended
Lyons has been under intense scrutiny since his wife of 25 years was arrested nearly three weeks ago, accused of arson and burglary. Deborah Lyons set fire to a $700,000 Tierra Verde home owned by her husband and Bernice Edwards, a convicted embezzler whom Henry Lyons hired as director of public relations for the National Baptist Convention.
Police say Deborah Lyons told them Edwards was Lyons' mistress, but Mrs. Lyons has since recanted that allegation in interviews with reporters. Her husband described Edwards as a close family friend and business partner.
Still, questions have been raised about Lyons' new affluence and lavish spending since his 1994 election as president of the convention. Those questions mounted with the revelation that $28,000 in checks made out as donations to the National Baptist Convention had been cashed at a St. Petersburg check-cashing store by a woman who said she was Lyons' secretary.
New questions surfaced with accounts last week of how Brenda Harris hosted a neighborhood social with a man she introduced as Henry Harris, her fiance. Several neighbors said Henry Harris closely resembled photographs of Henry Lyons. Lyons has denied any romantic relationship with Harris, who is responsible for setting up meetings for the convention.
It was not known Thursday how often Lyons has used the Baptist Builder Fund to pay for his or Harris' expenses.
He has, however, used the fund for purposes more closely connected to convention business.
In June 1995, the National Baptist Convention USA held a meeting in San Diego. The convention left owing one large hotel $3,868. Some $527 of that was for phone calls and the rest for meeting rooms and banquet charges, records show. Nine months later, the hotel received a check for $3,868.
It came from the Baptist Builder Fund.
The only convention program with a name resembling the Baptist Builder Fund existed several years ago under Lyons' predecessor as president, the Rev. T.J. Jemison. In 1990, Jemison announced a plan to recruit 100,000 "Baptist Builders" to help pay off the mortgage on the organization's new headquarters, the $10-million World Center in Nashville.
Members were asked to give $10 a month, and in return they received a pin identifying them as Baptist Builders.
In 1994, Lyons replaced Jemison as president after a bitter election. The two men were archenemies, and Lyons had his own plans for raising money. He created Standard Bearers, and Armies of God, and Operation Freedom, and the Unified Program, each a separate mechanism for raising millions of dollars each year from the organization's 8.5-million members.
The Baptist Builders program of the Jemison era was no more. All bank accounts maintained by Jemison's team were closed. The money in those accounts, about $38,000 in all, was turned over to Lyons' team during a transition meeting in Baton Rouge, La., in late 1994.
It is unclear where that money went.
What is clear is that Lyons has had great success filling the convention's bank accounts through his various fund-raising efforts. Just two years later, an audit of the convention showed that it held more than $1-million in cash and cash equivalents. Ties to United Bank
The United Bank has surfaced several times in connection to the recent controversy surrounding Lyons.
Earlier this year, the United Bank provided a $60,000 loan toward the purchase of a $135,000 Mercedes-Benz S 600V, which was registered to Lyons' church, Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church, and his friend, Bernice Edwards.
Grady Irvin, the attorney for Lyons, said Thursday night that the car was purchased as a gift for Lyons. When asked who the gift was from, Irvin abruptly ended the telephone interview, saying he had to rush to catch a flight.
In February, Edwards signed a contract to purchase an estate in Charlotte, N.C., for $925,000. As a deposit, the homeowners received a $2,000 cashier's check from the United Bank, bearing the names of both Edwards and Lyons. The real estate deal collapsed after Lyons' wife was charged with the Tierra Verde arson.
The United Bank is a small, privately held bank with four branches in Pinellas County and assets of about $130-million, said its chairman, Neil Savage.
Citing bank secrecy rules, Savage declined to provide any details about Lyons' dealings with the bank. He also declined to say whether law enforcement officials have subpoenaed any records related to Lyons, Edwards or the National Baptist Convention.
The Nashville City Club was only slightly more forthcoming.
Michael Maultz, manager of the club, said last week that Lyons is still a member there.
As for Brenda Harris, he wouldn't say.
-- Times staff writers Mike Wilson, David Olinger and Steve Nohlgren contributed to this report, as did researchers Kitty Bennett, Carolyn Hardnett, Barbara Oliver and John Martin.
©Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.