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The Rev. Henry Lyons

 

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The Henry Lyons Story

©St. Petersburg Times, published December 28, 1997

Some say the world will end in fire, others say in ice. The secret world of the Rev. Henry Lyons ended with a match. The story of the year began about noon on Sunday, July 6, when neighbors saw smoke billowing out of a home in the island enclave of Tierra Verde. This was arson, a wife's jealous anguish written in flames. Later that day, Deborah Lyons admitted starting the blaze because she was convinced her husband, Henry Lyons, was having an affair. Her arrest raised eyebrows, and questions: How could Lyons, a St. Petersburg preacher and president of the National Baptist Convention USA, afford a $700,000 waterfront home? Why did he own it with a woman not his wife? Who was Bernice Edwards, anyway? The answers exceeded the limits of even the most active imagination. Lyons, national church leader and confidant of President Clinton, had used his position to make himself rich. Again and again, big corporations -- long-distance phone companies, funeral home companies, life insurance firms, and so on -- had paid Lyons huge fees for the chance to market products to black Baptists. Lyons, who once called himself "a simple preacher," used the money to sample the tastes of a tycoon. He drove a top-of-the-line Mercedes, negotiated for a $925,000 mansion in North Carolina, picked up a time share in Lake Tahoe, dropped $2,000 for a money clip. He shared many of these purchases with Edwards, a convicted embezzler. She was just one of three women - other than Mrs. Lyons - who had at one time or another represented themselves as the preacher's wife or fiance. By year's end, the authorities were closing in on Lyons. Witnesses appeared before a federal grand jury and Pinellas State Attorney Bernie McCabe continued his wide-ranging investigation. Lyons, speaking at a revival meeting late in the year, said he was ready for anything. "I am looking forward to the day when I have my day in court. That's right. Because it's the only way the truth can get out," he said. "I don't care what I'm facing. I want to go to court and tell my side. I'm looking forward to the day. And I'll put my future in God's hands. I want to do that. I want to do it. I ain't interested in no plea-bargaining. I ain't interested in none of that. I told my lawyers today, I said, "No, we're going to court.' It's the only way that my side can come out." Here's a look back at the life of Henry Lyons:

JAN. 17, 1942: Henry James Lyons is born in Gainesville. An only child, Lyons is raised by paternal grandparents he calls Momma and Daddy.

1960: Lyons moves to St. Petersburg, to attend Gibbs Junior College.

AUGUST 1964: Lyons is ordained a minister at First Baptist Institutional Church in St. Petersburg.

DEC. 21, 1966: Lyons marries his first wife, Patricia Lucile Demons. She will leave him, she later alleges in court papers, after he beat her.

FEB. 14, 1969: Henry and Patricia Lyons are divorced. Six weeks later he marries Camilla Smith.

MARCH 9, 1972: Lyons accepts the pulpit at Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in St. Petersburg.

APRIL 6, 1972: Lyons' divorce from his second wife becomes final. Two months later, Lyons weds Deborah Manuel in Cincinnati. The marriage license lists this as Lyons' first marriage. He will later tell a newspaper that he "just forgot" his two earlier marriages. Later still, he explains that he promised his third wife to "put those marriages" behind him.

APRIL 1982: The Florida General Baptist Convention, the state branch of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., elects Lyons president. He begins his ascent to the top of the convention.

OCTOBER 1987: Earlene Battle meets Lyons at a revival in Jacksonville and enters into spiritual counseling with him. She later will say that he seduced her, then physically abused her. After her lawyer threatens legal action, Lyons sends checks to Battle, some drawn on accounts of the Florida General Baptist Convention. Lyons denies abusing Battle, but acknowledges he may have sent money, just as he does for others in need.

1990: Lyons is struggling financially. The IRS files tax liens against him for failure to pay $10,684 in taxes in 1988 and 1989. The liens are resolved by mid-1991.

JULY 1990: Federal regulators close the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance Federal Credit Union after six years of weak performance. Lyons is a founding director. The credit union's goal was to use the strength of black churches and their members in economic development. Phony certificates of deposit, used to secure an $85,000 bank loan to the Florida General Baptist Convention, leads to a federal bank fraud investigation. Lyons will pay $85,000 restitution to the bank and spend a year in a pretrial diversion program, avoiding a criminal conviction.

SEPT. 1990: Lyons endorses Republican Bob Martinez for governor, though four years earlier he picked the Democrat, who paid Lyons "get-out-the-vote" fees. The party flip is not uncommon for Lyons, who establishes a pattern of zigzagging across the political landscape: Republican and Democrat, management and labor, sometimes on both sides of the same issue depending on who is paying him. Four months before Lyons endorses Martinez for re-election, Martinez' office begins writing checks totalling $50,000 to the Florida Institute of Drug and Substance Abuse, of which Lyons was president. With Martinez' approval, the Legislature later appropriates another $300,000 for the drug institute.

1993: Bernice V. Edwards meets Lyons through a Wisconsin branch of the National Baptist Convention. The Milwaukee woman helps Lyons' quest for president of the national convention. Lyons describes her as a wealthy woman with a ready supply of "mega-dollars." Says Lyons:"I was just a little poor pitiful boy from the South, but when I met her, I'm here to tell you, the money started to flow." Court records, however, show Edwards is a woman with a trail of debts, angry landlords, failed business endeavors, and bankruptcies. Edwards has used a half-dozen Social Security numbers and various names: Bree Jones, Brenice Edwards, Bernice Jones, Breniece Edwards Jones.

NOV. 4, 1993: Edwards is found guilty of embezzling $60,000 from a Milwaukee high school for at-risk students so she could buy cars, a fur and air conditioning. She agrees to testify against her partner at the school and pleads with the judge for leniency. "I understand what I've done and I understand that it is wrong. ... I love God and I'm very sorry." Edwards is sentenced to three years probation, including a requirement that she close all checking accounts and use no lines of credit without permission from her probation officer.

SEPT. 5-8, 1994: Lyons wins a five-year term as president of the National Baptist Convention USA in a wild election that leaves Lyons' rivals claiming vote irregularities. A judge upholds Lyons' election after a challenge from supporters of the Rev. T.J. Jemison, who had held the job for 12 years. Lyons, who ran as a reformer, says of Jemison: "His administration is an administration Haitian-style."

LATE 1994: Rewarding Edwards for helping his campaign, Lyons hires her as corporate public relations director for the Baptist convention.

1995: Lyons opens "The National Baptist Convention USA Inc. Baptist Builder Fund" at United Bank and Trust in St. Petersburg. Lyons controls this convention account, which is unknown to other convention leaders, including the chairman of the budget and finance committee. It is not listed in the convention's annual report or audit.

EARLY 1995: Lyons begins marketing the convention to corporations around the country. The convention claims 8.5-million members, making it the largest black religious group in the country -- and, thus, a good way to reach African-American consumers. Lyons includes the figure on his letterhead and markets it to corporations selling credit cards, funeral services, insurance, phone service and automobiles. A St. Petersburg Times analysis will reveal that the 8.5-million figure is a wild exaggeration: the convention's own records show the group includes fewer than 1-million members.

APRIL 1995: In one corporate deal, a Nashville bank advances $300,000 to the National Baptist Convention USA to market its credit cards to convention members. The $300,000 loan is based on an NBC resolution authorizing Lyons to receive the money. But the convention's general secretary, the Rev. Roscoe Cooper, will later say his signature on that document was forged. The credit card deal later flops and Union Planters Bank sues the convention for its $300,000.

FALL 1995: In another corporate deal, Lyons endorses The Loewen Group, a Canadian cemetery and funeral home conglomerate, as the "death-care provider of choice" for convention members. Loewen says it pays salaries to Lyons, Edwards and others and makes donations to the convention, but will not disclose specific amounts. Actually, more than $1-million of Loewen Group money will be wired into a secret Wisconsin bank account arranged by Edwards. Some money from the account in Milwaukee will go for personal purchases by Edwards and Lyons, and some will be transferred into the Baptist Builder Fund, Lyons' secret account in St. Petersburg. Josephine Hicks, a friend of Edwards and a longtime Milwaukee diner owner, will explain that she opened the J.H. Associates account as a favor to Edwards - who isn't allowed to open new checking accounts without permission from her probation officer.

OCTOBER 1995: The Loewen Group's deal with Lyons backfires and helps to nearly bankrupt the Canadian corporation. In an unrelated lawsuit against Loewen, opposing lawyers seize on the convention's bogus claim of 8-million members to show how much money Loewen will make from black Baptist consumers. The jury orders Loewen to pay a record $500-million judgment.

OCT. 16, 1995: Bernice Edwards' lawyer asks a federal judge to end her probation for embezzling. Edwards' attorney says Lyons is "fully aware of the criminal conviction" and "the National Baptist Convention has advanced funds on a periodic, regular basis" to help Edwards pay her restitution. Lyons later disputes this. The judge keeps Edwards on probation.

OCT. 27, 1995: Edwards and Lyons pay $22,000 for a vacation time-share in a top-of-the-line, "Emerald Suite" condo in Lake Tahoe. It features a private hot tub, fireplace and CD system. The deed, executed on Edwards' 39th birthday, lists both Lyons and Edwards as unmarried. Lyons later acknowledges that the $22,000 came from the Baptist Builder Fund, but says the money actually belongs to Edwards as part of $365,000 he paid her for working on another corporate marketing deal.

JAN. 15, 1996: On Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, Lyons and others announce the formation of the for-profit Revelation Corporation of America. The idea is to harness the clout of 20-million black church members in a for-profit buying club that, in turn, would help rebuild economically depressed urban areas. By the summer of 1997, though, Revelation has signed up only 2-million members and profits are meager.

FEB. 2, 1996: The U.S. Department of Agriculture sends a $75,000 check to Lyons' Minority Enterprise Financial Acquisition Company, and sends another $75,000 in April. The money is supposed to help poor black farmers in Alabama. Instead, auditors find, the money goes "to benefit pastors and active lay persons." Lyons is chairman of the board. The government wants the money back, the IRS finds the company hasn't paid any taxes, and the Justice Department is investigating.

FEB. 11, 1996: Edwards selects a 5.56-carat diamond ring that costs $38,700 at a St. Petersburg jewelry shop. From her room at the Don Cesar Beach Resort, Edwards hands the jeweler a down payment check of $10,000 -- drawn on the Baptist Builder Fund. Once again, Lyons acknowledges that the money came from his secret convention account, but says the money actually belonged to Edwards. The balance on the ring, $28,700, is paid with two checks from the Milwaukee account that held more than $1-million in Loewen Group payments.

MARCH 1, 1996: Lyons closes the purchase of a five-bedroom, $700,000 waterfront home on Tierra Verde. The same day, he adds Edwards' name to the deed, which lists him as a single man. After his wife sets fire to the house, Lyons will say Edwards is independently wealthy and supplied all the money for the purchase. In fact, $90,000 of the down payment came from the Baptist Builder Fund, Lyons' secret account in St. Petersburg. He says he was holding Edwards' money, earned for work on a corporate marketing deal, in that account. Another $136,000 comes from the secret Milwaukee account that held more than $1-million in Loewen Group payments. To help secure the mortgage, the lender gets a one-year lease, committing the NBC to pay Lyons rent on the house. Later, the two Baptist leaders whose "signatures" are on the lease say they never approved it and know nothing about it. For the Rev. Roscoe Cooper, it is the second time his signature turns up forged on a convention document. Lyons says he doesn't know where the lease came from. He variously describes the house as a "national guest house" for the convention and as a tax shelter for Edwards.

APRIL 14, 1996: A check for $200,000 is deposited into the Baptist Builder Fund, Lyons' secret account in St. Petersburg. It will be the first of three checks from a Chase Manhattan Bank account that belongs to the Permanent Mission of Nigeria, that nation's diplomatic outpost here. Several months earlier, a group of ministers has urged Lyons to offer support for Nigeria's military regime. They want Lyons to help soften U.S. policy toward Gen. Sani Abacha, widely condemned for executing political opponents. Lyons is receptive. The Baptist Builder Fund will receive a total of $350,000 from the Nigerian government within the next year.

MAY 1996: Brenda Harris, the NBC's director of conventions, buys a house for $340,000 in Nashville, putting down $102,000. An NBC letter says the Baptists will guarantee up to $300,000 in a house loan for Harris. The letter purportedly bears the signatures of board members Roscoe Cooper and A.H. Newman, but the signatures are obviously not their own. It is the third time Cooper's signature has been forged, the second for Newman, the convention's chairman. Lyons says Harris never used the convention guarantee to get her house, which she will put on the market in late 1997 for $429,000. Lyons and Harris deny having a romance, but neighbors recall Harris describing Lyons as her fiancee. Lyons wrote a $1,000 check from the Baptist Builder Fund for memberships for himself and Harris in the exclusive Nashville City Club.

JULY 4, 1996: Mary E. Strong, a 76-year-old Atlanta woman, gives Edwards and Lyons joint ownership of a 1987 Rolls-Royce worth about $30,000. Mrs. Strong is the mother of Jesse Douglas Jones, the man Edwards lived with in Milwaukee before his death of liver cancer on June 10, 1996.

JULY 1996: Though Lyons is not registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent, as is required by law of all lobbyists, Lyons urges the Congressional Black Caucus to soften its rigid stand against the Nigerian government. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, which staunchly opposed the regime, are shocked. "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." Four months later, in a letter to President Clinton, a Nigeria lobbyist asks Clinton to meet with Lyons and other black leaders "to hear another point of view on Nigeria." The meeting never happens, but Lyons does discuss Nigeria with officials in the National Security Council.

FALL 1996: The convention proposes to develop a 500-room Hilton hotel in Broward County. Lyons submits a letter guaranteeing to fill 200,000 rooms a year with Baptist delegates, a promise backed up in a separate letter purportedly by E. Edward Jones, head of a different Baptist group. Jones denies writing the letter, or even knowing about the commitment. Ultimately the Broward County Commission agrees to go ahead with the hotel - but only after Lyons and the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. are banished from the deal.

NOV. 29, 1996: A letter bearing Lyons' signature reports that Lyons has successfully distributed more than $200,000 to six African-American churches that burned down during a rash of fires in the South. The New York-based Anti-Defamation League collected the $244,500 in donations from concerned citizens, then gave Lyons the money to distribute to needy churches. Almost a year later, Lyons will acknowledge he handed out only $30,000 to the churches. He says he withheld the remaining $214,500 because the churches didn't need it. Anti-Defamation League officials are stunned and angry. Lyons says none of the money went to personal expenses. His attorney sends the Anti-Defamation League a reimbursement check for $214,500.

FEB. 10, 1997: Bernice Edwards buys $130,775 worth of jewelry and other items from a Clearwater company called Bay Imports. Among her picks: a 20.06-carat diamond. Edwards writes a check to Bay Imports for $25,000, but the check bounces. The check is from a Mercantile Bank account held in the names of Henry J. Lyons and Bernice V. Edwards at the Tierra Verde address. Bay Imports later files suit.

FEB. 19, 1997: Bernice Edwards signs a contract to buy a $925,000 mansion in Charlotte, N.C. In mid-April, a new contract is submitted, this one signed by Lyons and Edwards. Neither of them shows up for the closing. A second closing, scheduled for July, is canceled. Lyons says he has no knowledge of the house, though his signature is on the sales contract and he and Edwards are listed on a $2,000 check used as earnest money. The check came from the United Bank in St. Petersburg, where Lyons maintained his Baptist Builder Fund.

MARCH 1997: Lyons takes possession of a $135,000, 1997 Mercedes-Benz that is registered to Lyons' church and Edwards. It comes with heated leather seats and a suede-lined floor and ceiling. Because it was registered in the church's name, no sales tax was paid. Once the car becomes public knowledge, Lyons will promise to get it out of the church's name, though state auto records say the registration remains the same. Lyons says Edwards paid the car down payment as a gift to him, though the money came from the Baptist Builder Fund. The $75,000 down payment, he says, was Edwards' money from a commission on a deal she helped negotiate with General Motors.

JULY 1997: Lyons leads a church group, including Edwards, to Nigeria. They stay in luxury hotels and ride in limousines at government expense.

JULY 6, 1997: With her husband in Nigeria, Deborah Lyons goes to the house in Tierra Verde. She tells investigators that she is convinced her husband is having an affair with Edwards. Mrs. Lyons breaks lamps, rips stuffing from pillows and sets several fires, causing $30,000 in damage. Driving home, she crashes into a palm tree. "Why did he do this to me?" she wails before the investigators, pounding her legs with her fists. She is charged with arson and burglary. A day later, she changes her story: She set the fires by accident, and her husband has not betrayed her. She will say she was "drinking and under stress."

JULY 8, 1997: Reached at his hotel in Abuja, Nigeria, Lyons says: "Oh it's been a rough day."

JULY 11, 1997: Back at his St. Petersburg church, Lyons holds a news conference. He denies anything more than a business relationship with Edwards, pledges that not a penny of money from his church or the National Baptist Convention was used to buy the Tierra Verde house and accuses the media of going after him because he is black and wealthy: "What are you trying to imply? That blacks in this country cannot be successful and live well?"

JULY 17, 1997: The St. Petersburg Times reports that $28,000 in checks made out to six different fund-raising programs of the National Baptist Convention USA have been cashed at a local check cashing store. A letter authorizing the check-cashing bears Lyons' signature; Lyons says the signature is from a stamp, and he didn't authorize its use. Meanwhile, the convention board members meet and pass a resolution supporting Lyons and his explanations of the mounting allegations.

JULY 25, 1997: The St. Petersburg Times reveals the existence of Lyons' Baptist Builder Fund. Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe subpoenas records of the bank account at United Bank.

AUG. 2, 1997: The convention appoints its own 18-member investigative committee, led by Los Angeles minister E.V. Hill, to look into Lyons' handling of church funds and his relationships with Edwards and Harris.

AUG. 3, 1997: Lyons announces that he is severing all business ties to Bernice Edwards, including her job with the convention. Edwards, at home in Milwaukee, remains silent.

AUG. 21, 1997: U.S. Attorney Charles Wilson announces he is launching an investigation into Lyons.

AUG. 27, 1997: On the eve of the NBC's annual meeting, Lyons acknowledges that up to 75 percent of the money from some convention corporate deals went to himself, Edwards and the Rev. Frederick Demps as "commissions." That left 25 percent for the convention. (Demps, a former janitor from Palatka, will later deny receiving any commissions.) In hindsight, Lyons says, those commissions were too high. Lyons also says he made a "big mistake" when he mixed Edwards' commissions with regular convention money in the Baptist Builder Fund.

SEPT. 1-4, 1997: A tumultuous battle for the presidency is waged at the NBC's annual meeting in Denver. Lyons' top supporters announce the NBC's investigation is over and that no wrongdoing has been found. In a dramatic showdown on the floor of the convention, Lyons' detractors and supporters get a chance to make their cases. Lyons' wife says she is a recovering alcoholic and asks for forgiveness for her husband. After a vote, Lyons' enemies concede defeat. Lyons will remain president of the convention. During the battle, Lyons' supporters repeatedly tout his generosity to black colleges. Lyons says the convention has given $2-million to colleges during his tenure. In truth, the St. Petersburg Times will report, Lyons has given $345,000 less than that by his own accounting.

SEPT 5, 1997: The Loewen Group tells Lyons it is ending its business relationship with the convention. The Canadian conglomerate says it is turning over records of its deal with Lyons to investigators in Florida. Other corporations also will cooperate with prosecutors.

OCT. 13, 1997: Lyons is cited by county inspectors for a poor paint job and dirty swimming pool at the Tierra Verde house. Ten days later, county records show Lyons has paid $310 in fines. The house gets a new paint job and a poolman cleans out the algae. Lyons has pledged to sell the house, but county records show Lyons and Edwards still co-own it.

OCT. 20, 1997: Deborah Lyons pleads guilty to arson at the Tierra Verde house. The judge sentences her to five years probation, which requires Mrs. Lyons to abstain from alcohol, continue attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and perform 200 hours of community service. Mrs. Lyons' boss will say a few weeks later that Mrs. Lyons has decided to leave her job as manager of a youth training program to take a different position because of stress in her personal life.

OCT. 30, 1997: Lyons sends convention members a letter announcing he has closed the controversial Baptist Builder Fund and opened a "Presidential Discretionary Account" which, he says, will be audited at year's end. Lyons says a five-member financial committee, which includes himself, will now handle all convention expenditures.

NOVEMBER 1997: The federal inquiry into Lyons' dealings has expanded to Wisconsin, where FBI agents confirm they are investigating Bernice Edwards.

NOV. 10, 1997: NAACP leaders call for Lyons and three others accused of financial misdeeds to resign from the NAACP's national board. "... The reputation of the NAACP is at stake," says NAACP chairwoman Myrlie Evers-Williams.

DEC. 3, 1997: Lyons calls another news conference at his St. Petersburg church. Flanked by his wife and daughter, Lyons says he is sorry for mistakes and ready to face criminal charges. He also says he has filed amended income tax returns. His attorneys acknowledge a federal grand jury in Tampa is investigating. As for Lyons' future with the convention and his church, Lyons says he will stay on at the helm of both. "I have sinned," Lyons says, but "I am no monster." Later in the day, St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer says the city should sever its partnership with Bethel Village, a $5-million facility for elderly residents next to Lyons' church, even though Lyons has resigned from the project's board. Earlier, the project's leaders had submitted an application for federal financial backing that included a document pledging up to $750,000 from the convention. Once again, the Rev. Roscoe Cooper, the convention's general secretary, says his signature was forged on that Feb. 11, 1997 document.

DEC. 11, 1997: Cooper and Newman are among convention employees appearing before a federal grand jury in Tampa. The grand jury also subpoenas all of the NBC's financial records for the past few years. A criminal investigator from the Internal Revenue Service is assisting prosecutors.




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