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The Rev. Henry Lyons

 

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Nigeria sent cash to Lyons fund

By DAVID BARSTOW, MIKE WILSON and MONICA DAVEY

©St. Petersburg Times, published November 25, 1997


During a period when the Rev. Henry J. Lyons lobbied the Clinton administration and Congress to soften opposition to the military government of Nigeria, a total of $350,000 was deposited into a secret bank account controlled by Lyons.

The source of the money: the Nigerian government.

As the money poured in, Lyons was establishing himself as one of America's most visible and important spokesmen for the regime of Gen. Sani Abacha, who seized power in the African nation in a palace coup in 1993.

Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, sent convention members on "fact-finding" missions to Nigeria, vigorously lobbied influential black members of Congress and pitched the Nigerian point of view to the National Security Council at the White House.

The three deposits into Lyons' secret account -- the Baptist Builder Fund at the United Bank in St. Petersburg -- occurred between April 1996 and February 1997. The checks came from Nigeria's Permanent Mission to the United Nations. Over the past few years, the mission has played a significant role in financing the Abacha government's multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign in the United States.

The checks -- for $200,000, $50,000 and $100,000 -- were made out to the National Baptist Convention Education Fund or to the National Baptist Convention Fund. No record of the deposits appears in convention financial reports and several convention board members said they knew nothing of them.

It is a felony under federal law to lobby for a foreign government without filing formal registration papers with the Justice Department. Lyons did not register. Government officials do not recall Lyons informing them about the $350,000 deposited to the Baptist Builder Fund, over which he had sole control.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, which staunchly opposed the Abacha government, were shocked when Lyons lobbied them in July 1996.

"We didn't know what kind of compensation he was receiving, but we knew from what he said that he was working for the government some kind of way," said Rep. Harold Ford Sr., D-Tenn., now retired. "If he had told us that he was a paid lobbyist for Nigeria, he never would have been allowed to come before the caucus."

Lyons declined to be interviewed for this story, but his attorney released a statement from Lyons' office on Monday. The one-page statement did not address the deposits to Lyons' secret account, nor did it address his lobbying activities. It referred only to an expense-paid trip that Lyons and others took to Nigeria in July.

"No member was under any obligation, whatsoever, to endorse the political views of Nigeria's government or its people," the statement said.

According to the statement, "this office or one of its representatives consulted certain African-American members of Congress prior to the delegation traveling to Nigeria -- for the purpose of learning any concerns such members might have."

In an interview with the Times after returning from his trip, Lyons denied that he had been asked to become a paid lobbyist or agent for Nigeria.

"I'm a man, I support my family, I'm not going to sit here and say I'm going to turn down some money, but that never came up," he said then. "My effort has been strictly from a humanitarian point of view and right now that's strictly what it is."

Nigeria's Permanent Mission, the country's diplomatic liaison to the United Nations, has "no evidence . . . that we made any payments to Dr. Lyons," according to deputy defense adviser Yusuf Mshelia.

Asked whether the mission wrote checks to the National Baptist Convention Education Fund or the National Baptist Convention Fund, Mshelia would not answer.

Lobbying begins

Lyons' transition from religious leader to lobbyist began in 1995.

At the time, Nigeria's military dictatorship was facing a serious image problem in the United States.

The State Department had reported a catalog of abuses by the Abacha administration: crushed protest marches, harassment of pro-democracy groups, the imprisonment and assassination of political rivals. The Clinton administration denounced Nigeria as a hub of the world heroin trade and denied entry visas to Nigerian officials and their families.

The Abacha government responded by hiring a battalion of Washington lobbyists to get the United States to rethink its policies toward Nigeria. The Nigerian government spent millions; one firm received $2.5-million over three years.

The most visible lobbyist for Nigeria was the Rev. Maurice Dawkins, 76, a former Baptist minister and unsuccessful Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Virginia in 1988.

In July 1995, Dawkins helped the lobbying firm of Symms, Lehn & Associates land a $350,000 contract with the Abacha government. Dawkins' job was to present Nigeria as a modern, flourishing country moving toward democracy under the shrewd leadership of Abacha.

Meanwhile, he portrayed U.S. policy as racist. Why else does the United States grant most favored nation trading status to China but not Nigeria?

Dawkins pitched these ideas to black leaders, who strongly influence U.S. policy toward Africa. But there was a problem: Almost every member of the Congressional Black Caucus regarded Abacha as a brutal leader who promised democracy even as he held Nigeria's elected president in solitary confinement.

So Dawkins tried to reach African-Americans by appealing to the people who speak to them -- preachers and black newspaper publishers.

In September 1995, he sent a group of black publishers on a tour of Nigeria. The Nigerian government paid all expenses. Several of the black newspapers later published special sections touting Abacha as "a family man" and "a historical figure." Dawkins wrote some of the copy.

Then Abacha made Dawkins' job harder.

On Nov. 10, 1995, Abacha's government ignored international appeals and executed writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others. A military tribunal convicted the activists of inciting a riot that led to the deaths of four pro-government tribal leaders.

The activists were hanged without an appeal days after their conviction.

Suddenly Abacha wasn't merely unpopular; he was viewed as a pariah. Nelson Mandela called Nigeria's government "an illegitimate, barbaric, arrogant dictatorship." Fifty-four influential black Americans, including Bill Cosby and Coretta Scott King, sent Clinton a letter demanding a harsh response. In Congress, bills were introduced calling for a ban on new investment in Nigeria.

There was talk of an oil embargo. This would have been a serious blow to Nigeria, which supplies 600,000 barrels a day to the United States and gets 80 percent of its government revenues from oil.

Nigeria countered with a newspaper ad campaign, but that wasn't going to be enough. The Abacha regime needed a spokesman, someone prominent and well connected who could counter the Bill Cosbys and Coretta Scott Kings.

Enlisting Lyons

Henry J. Lyons was just the kind of person Abacha had been looking for. Lyons claimed to represent 8.5-million black Baptists. President Clinton sought his advice and support. He had useful contacts in the Congressional Black Caucus.

Weeks after the nine activists were hanged, Dawkins sent a group of ministers on another expenses-paid trip to Nigeria. Among them were the Rev. James Rogers of Las Vegas and the Rev. Russell Odom of West Palm Beach.

Both had close ties to Lyons. Rogers was a member of the National Baptist Convention board. Odom had served as Lyons' political director when Lyons was president of the convention's Florida branch.

Along with Dawkins, these men would attempt to get Lyons interested in Nigeria.

In January 1996, Odom sent Lyons a packet of pro-Nigeria literature. Rogers and Dawkins followed up with phone calls.

The National Baptist Convention had shown little, if any, interest in Nigeria during Lyons' presidency. Available records show the subject did not come up at convention meetings in 1994 and 1995. The convention hadn't sponsored a mission in Nigeria since 1962.

But now Lyons was receptive. He had often hired himself out as a spokesman for political causes. Lyons had worked for Democrats and Republicans, management and labor, sometimes shifting his views depending on who was paying him.

In March, Lyons sent a delegation to monitor local elections in Nigeria. He called it his Task Force on Africa and put Rogers in charge. The task force also included Odom and the convention's first vice president.

Rogers said the delegation met privately with Abacha, who spoke of wanting to enlist America's black leaders in Nigeria's cause. Rogers said the delegation emphasized Lyons' stature and influence.

They stayed a week, traveling in government Mercedes-Benz limos, shopping with hundreds of dollars also provided by the Nigerians, Rogers said. The delegation originally had planned to meet with top political prisoners, he said, but never got around to it.

When the delegates left, their government handlers presented them with souvenir tie-dye T-shirts.

Dawkins -- whose firm so far had been paid $350,000 to represent Nigeria -- would later boast that he "enlisted the support of Dr. Henry Lyons . . . and launched a nationwide petition campaign to battle for the mind of President Clinton."

On April 9, Lyons had an opportunity to do just that. Clinton hosted a reception for a group of ministers at the White House, and Lyons was there. The White House won't say whether Lyons talked to Clinton about Nigeria that night, or ever.

Five days later, a check for $200,000 was deposited into the Baptist Builder Fund, Lyons' secret account. The check was drawn on an account at a Chase Manhattan Bank branch in New York City.

That account, #0141147009, belonged to the Permanent Mission of Nigeria.

To people in the business of lobbying for Nigeria, the account sounds familiar. One lobbyist, Jeff Birrell, said he once received a $100,000 payment from a Chase Manhattan account belonging to the Permanent Mission.

The lobbying firm Dawkins worked for dealt exclusively with Col. Mohammed Marwa, then the defense adviser attached to the mission. Marwa often hired lobbyists. He also briefed Odom and Rogers before their December trip to Nigeria.

"His assignment was to buy as much support as possible for the junta," said Julius Ihonvbere, a member of the Nigerian opposition in the United States.

Lyons' support was needed now more than ever. The U.S. Senate was considering legislation to impose new sanctions on Nigeria. Also that May, the internationally respected Committee to Protect Journalists named Abacha to its list of the world's top-ten Enemies of the Press.

Abacha was No. 3 on the list, just behind China's Deng Xiaoping, but several notches above Fidel Castro.

Deposits made

On June 3, another check from the Permanent Mission of Nigeria was deposited into the Baptist Builder Fund.

The amount: $50,000.

The next day, Nigeria's image problems worsened. Kudirat Abiola, mother of seven and wife of the imprisoned winner of Nigeria's 1993 presidential election, was murdered near a military checkpoint. Armed men pulled Mrs. Abiola out of her car and shot her in the forehead.

Days later, Lyons had another opportunity to lobby the Clinton administration. On June 8, he attended a private reception for Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort in St. Petersburg. Mrs. Clinton's spokesman would not say whether Lyons spoke to her about Nigeria.

Later that month, a Nigerian government official addressed the board of the National Baptist Convention in St. Louis. According to minutes of that meeting, the representative "appealed to the convention to share in leading a crusade to change present United States policy toward Nigeria."

Rogers, who had led the task force to Nigeria, was in St. Louis. He spoke to Lyons about Nigeria. Lyons didn't mention deposits into the Baptist Builder Fund, Rogers said.

He was not entirely surprised when a reporter told him of the deposits. As early as January 1996, Rogers said, he had heard gossip of such payments among top convention officials.

"I was told there was supposedly money transferred over from Nigeria," he said.

Nigeria talk angers

The Congressional Black Caucus has long opposed the Abacha government. Lyons set out to change that.

In the summer of 1996, Russell Odom asked then-Rep. Harold Ford Sr. to put Lyons on the agenda for a meeting of the caucus. Odom said Lyons would talk about issues of interest to the caucus -- nutrition, education, and so on. Odom never mentioned Nigeria, Ford said.

As a member of Lyons' religious denomination, Ford set up the meeting.

Lyons addressed the caucus on a Wednesday in July. Instead of talking about social issues, he argued that the United States should normalize relations with the Abacha regime.

Few in the caucus would have considered that idea. Rep. Donald M. Payne, D-N.J., then the caucus chairman, was the man who introduced a bill to stiffen U.S. sanctions against the Nigerian government. His successor, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., was a co-sponsor.

In an interview, Waters said she thought Lyons' stance was naive.

"I just feel that some of these people who lobby on behalf of Nigeria really don't understand what they're doing. They're involved in an international question that they don't understand the enormity of," she said.

Still, she and others were livid over Lyons' presentation. They had no idea Lyons was coming to speak on Nigeria. They felt blindsided.

"Maxine Waters and everybody else raised pure hell. I had to tell my colleagues that I had nothing to do with it," Ford said. "I was totally taken aback and felt like I was ambushed."

Did he know Lyons' account had received six-figure deposits from the Nigerian government?

"No," Ford said. "Are you kidding me?"

Waters had a similar reaction. Asked what she would think if she found out Lyons' account had received $350,000, Waters sounded stunned.

"What?"

There was a pause.

"What?"

And then: "I'd be shocked, I'd be absolutely shocked and pained," she said. "I hope that is not true."

Lobby law

Any person who seeks to influence U.S. government officials "at the order, request, or under the direction or control" of a foreign government must register with the Justice Department as a foreign agent.

Foreign agents are required to fill out extensive reports describing who hired them, how much they were paid, which U.S. officials they met, and what they discussed.

It's the law, and those who "willfully" violate it are guilty of a felony. The punishment is up to $10,000 in fines, five years in prison, or both.

Though prosecutions are rare, the purpose of the law is to deter other countries from covertly shaping U.S. foreign policy through front groups, disguised propaganda campaigns or the secret recruitment of influential figures. The law was a response to just such efforts by Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus said it was clear what Lyons was trying to do. "We were definitely lobbied," Waters said. "He did lobby us. I don't think he'd deny that."

Sessions with Clinton

In September 1996, about 20,000 members of the National Baptist Convention assembled in Orlando for its 116th annual meeting.

Lyons introduced his guest of honor -- "our friend for many years" -- President Clinton, who came seeking support from a key constituency for his re-election.

The next day, Lyons spoke at length about Nigeria in his annual address to the convention. According to the text of his speech, Lyons echoed themes and arguments Dawkins and other Nigerian lobbyists had been making for months.

"It is the contention of this country that due to the "infighting' in Nigeria, America cannot allow its products and goods to be brought on U.S. soil," Lyons began. "When the Chinese were committing their crimes against humanity, did the flow of money brought by the exchange of goods and services cease in America? . . . The answer is no! Only when it is a black nation, managed by black people, does the nation of America get involved to the point of negative impact on a people. The stoppage of products, goods and services is hurting Black America and it is killing Nigeria!"

Lyons announced that the convention's board of directors planned to deliver a resolution to the White House and the Congressional Black Caucus demanding a repeal of the U.S. sanctions against Nigeria.

In early November, Clinton returned to Tampa on a final campaign push. He invited Lyons for breakfast in his hotel room. A few weeks later, on Nov. 24, the Rev. Dawkins wrote a letter to Clinton asking him to meet with Lyons and two other prominent black leaders "to hear another point of view on Nigeria."

Julia Payne, a White House spokesman, said Lyons contacted the Clinton administration about this time to discuss Nigeria. While the meeting requested by Dawkins did not occur, Lyons spoke to officials in the National Security Council about Nigeria, Payne said.

Lyons' efforts did not affect Clinton's policy.

"Our policy is unchanged," Payne said.

Big spending

On Feb. 26, 1997, a $100,000 check from the Permanent Mission of Nigeria was deposited into the Baptist Builder Fund, bringing the total payments to $350,000.

The Nigerian checks were made payable to the National Baptist Convention Education Fund or, at least once, to the National Baptist Convention Fund.

The Education Fund has come up before. Some corporations that signed marketing deals with Lyons were asked to make their checks payable to that fund. Lyons paid himself and his associates hundreds of thousands of dollars in commissions from those corporate deals.

At the time of the third Nigeria payment, Lyons was spending heavily.

He and convicted embezzler Bernice Edwards were negotiating to buy a $925,000 mansion in North Carolina. Also in February, Edwards bought $130,000 worth of jewelry with money from an account she shared with Lyons. Weeks later, Lyons and Edwards bought a $135,000 Mercedes-Benz. Some of the money for these purchases came from the Baptist Builder Fund.

Lyons also was paying large sums to Russell Odom, the West Palm Beach minister who helped get Lyons interested in Nigeria.

Soon after each deposit from the Nigerian government, Odom or his wife received payments from Lyons. After the $200,000 deposit, Deanna Odom received $50,000 from Lyons. After the $50,000 deposit, Russell Odom received $12,500. After the $100,000 deposit, Russell Odom got $26,000.

In an interview, Odom acknowledged that he received $88,500 from Lyons, handled many of Lyons' dealings with Nigeria, joined Lyons in the meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus, has a long friendship with Maurice Dawkins, and knows Col. Marwa, the defense attache who orchestrated some of Nigeria's lobbying activities.

But Odom denied that the payments from Lyons had anything to do with Nigeria, or lobbying. He also said he knew nothing of the $350,000 deposited into the Baptist Builder Fund.

"Dr. Lyons, to my knowledge, never got any money from Nigeria," he said. "I don't know anything about any payments from Nigeria."

Odom said he and his wife were paid for consulting work they did for Lyons on U.S. health care and social service programs. He declined to give specifics.

Odom has described himself as a consultant before. That is the occupation he mentioned to Palm Beach County sheriff's deputies on Aug. 10, 1996, when he was arrested for asking an undercover officer to sell him "20 soft" -- street talk for $20 worth of powder cocaine. Odom entered a rehabilitation program for first-time offenders.

Nigeria visit

On July 6, Lyons' wife set fire to a waterfront Tierra Verde home Lyons co-owns with Bernice Edwards. Lyons was out of town. He got the news when he called home from Nigeria, where he was on a 10-day visit.

He was there to make deals. He was interested in the oil and housing markets and in the Nigerian Stock Exchange.

He also talked politics. According to press reports, he boasted that the National Baptist Convention has "enough clout to block any sanctions on Nigeria." He said he sent letters to 500,000 African-Americans describing the "real situation" in Nigeria. He promised to pressure the Congressional Black Caucus to change its views.

Lyons and his delegation -- Edwards, Odom and at least 10 other ministers and business people -- traveled first-class. They flew in one of Abacha's planes. Their limousines were led through the crowded streets by police escorts. They stayed in a five-star Hilton.

The Abacha government paid for everything.

According to the statement from Lyons' office, the delegation's trip "cost more $350,000.00 (sic) and encompassed actual on-site study and analysis in the majority of the (Nigerian) states." That would mean each member of the delegation spent more than $2,300 per day. The statement did not say whether the $350,000 in Nigerian deposits -- which began 15 months before the trip -- were intended to pay for the trip's expenses.

When Lyons returned home, he said he liked what he saw. "I found it was as different as night and day from what I expected," he said.

-- Times staff writers David Dahl and Katherine Gazella and researchers Kitty Bennett and John Martin contributed to this report.


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