The Rev. Henry Lyons
Got a news tip?
A Times Editorial
The mayor, the chief and Lyons
©St. Petersburg Times, published July 25, 1997
When St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer prevailed on reluctant city staffers last fall to approve a $300,000 loan for a housing development planned by the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, he didn't know that Lyons was doing business (and keeping house) with a convicted embezzler. He didn't know that Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, had to pay $85,000 in restitution as a result of a bank fraud investigation in 1991. And he didn't know that Lyons' signature appeared on a letter authorizing a secretary at Lyons' St. Petersburg church, Bethel Metropolitan Baptist, to cash $28,000 worth of checks made out to the national convention.
"If Lyons came in tomorrow (seeking a similar loan), we'd distance ourselves," Fischer said. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. But the more pressing task is to protect the city's investment in the project Fischer didn't distance himself from. The city has the option of foreclosing on the property if construction has not begun by the end of the year. Given what they know now, Fischer and other city officials should be looking for ways to cut their losses and end their association with Lyons.
Last fall, the mayor's support for the project may have been defensible, even though the staff members who reviewed its financial merits judged it "highly likely for failure." Fischer said he looked "beyond purely financial" benefits in pushing the project. By taking a chance on Lyons in the aftermath of last fall's racial disturbances, the mayor saw a chance to join with a nationally prominent black minister in a project that might help the city's African-American community.
However, city officials already had reason to question the wisdom of doing business with Lyons. In 1993, a corporation headed by Lyons received three housing rehabilitation loans, totaling $135,000, from the city. Two of the three renovated houses have sat vacant, and the city is now trying to sell them to recoup at least part of its money.
At least Fischer was straightforward in distancing himself from any further dealings with Lyons until the allegations against him are resolved. Police Chief Goliath Davis, by contrast, has been equivocal.
Lyons was the only private citizen on the Bayfront Center stage with Davis and other city officials last month when Davis was introduced as the city's new police chief. (Interestingly, both Davis and Fischer say today that they have no idea who invited Lyons.)
Davis says he would consider asking another agency to investigate any complaints against Lyons that come to his department. At the same time, Lyons still is scheduled to perform Davis' wedding ceremony next month. Davis says he is simply "honor(ing) my fiancee's wishes" by allowing Lyons to perform the ceremony, but public officials have to take direct responsibility for their public images. Davis needs to be straightforward about his relationship with Lyons.
Mayors, police chiefs and other top public officials have an obligation to take the steps necessary to avoid any appearance of impropriety in their relationships with friends, relatives and political supporters who become the targets of the kinds of allegations Lyons faces. That is the personal price of public service.
©Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.