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Banking records cannot be sealed, judge rules


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 3, 1998

ST. PETERSBURG -- A Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge ruled Thursday that Florida's public records law did not allow state prosecutors to seal 11,000 pages of banking records from their investigation of the Rev. Henry J. Lyons.

A Ministry Questioned: complete archive of the Lyons' saga
The documents, sought by the Times and other news organizations, provide key evidence in the state's racketeering and grand theft case against Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA.

In a hearing before Chief Circuit Judge Susan F. Schaeffer, attorneys for Lyons and the convention argued releasing the documents would lead to publicity that could impede Lyons' ability to get a fair trial.

"Once the cat is out of the bag, the harm is done," said Lyons' attorney, Grady Irvin.

A convention attorney also argued that state law allowed the court to seal certain financial records on privacy grounds guaranteed by the state Constitution.

But Schaeffer said the state statute governing public records, called Chapter 119, contained no exemption allowing the sealing of the bank records.

"I sometimes wish we didn't have Chapter 119," Schaeffer said. "But the Legislature wrote it, and we have to deal with it and live with it. ... The right of the public to know supersedes the right to confidentiality."

Referring to hundreds of articles already published on Lyons, Schaeffer said the "the cat is already so far out of the bag, you can't put it back in."

An hour after the ruling, the records were released.

National Baptist Convention attorney Bruce Howie said state public records laws would allow the judge to seal documents relating to the convention, which he said prosecutors describe as a victim of Lyons' alleged theft.

Chapter 119 does allow a judge to seal some financial records relating to crime victims. But Schaeffer said the NBC previously denied it is a victim of Lyons, and the convention could not now claim that exemption.

State Attorney Bernie McCabe's office already has released thousands of pages of documents to reporters, but asked Schaeffer for direction on whether banking records are public or private.

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