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Records portray Brenda Harris in an extravagant lifestyle

By MONICA DAVEY and DAVID BARSTOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 3, 1998


Her nickname was "Miss Priss."

Harris
Family members gave Brenda Harris that pet name in childhood, a San Diego newspaper once reported, after she was outraged by a playmate's slur.

Now 48, Harris, an award-winning businesswoman and polished speechmaker, finds herself at the center of a criminal prosecution along with her employer, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons.

Harris is accused of eight criminal counts, including conspiracy, bank fraud and money laundering. Not to mention other allegations that have emerged in court documents about Harris -- allegations of behavior that is anything but priggish.

A love affair with the boss. Pot in the bathtub. A mink coat, diamonds, cash.

Harris, who coordinates meetings and travel for the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., has broken no laws, her lawyer said.

"This is very difficult for her, of course," her attorney, Nader Baydoun, said Thursday after the indictment was returned. Harris, he said, has never before been charged with a crime. "We deny everything."

A Ministry Questioned: complete archive of the Lyons' saga
Brenda Darcel Harris grew up in California. She was an academic standout at a prestigious high school. She turned down college scholarships, though, to marry at 18.

"My parents were crushed," Harris told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1991. The marriage ended three years later, but Harris' guilt lasted longer. "It's taken 20 years for me to feel that I'm doing things for me and not to make up for hurting my parents."

Her second marriage also ended in divorce.

Her professional life was more successful. Before coming to the NBC, Harris worked as national sales manager for the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau, where, according to her online resume, she booked $128-million in meetings and conventions for the city. She also created Harris Travel Management Associates, a travel agency she still owns.

A trade association voted her the first "African American Salesperson of the Year." The San Diego Union-Tribune named her one of "100 African-American role model honorees."

Financially, Harris has faced ups and downs. Twice, in 1980 and 1991, she filed for bankruptcy protection.

When Lyons was elected NBC president in 1994, Harris moved to Nashville, Tenn., to become executive director of the NBC's Office of Conventions and Meetings at a wage of $35,000 a year, according to prosecution documents.

State prosecutors say she made far more. Prosecution records show Harris received $456,264 from the convention between 1994 and 1997. The state prosecutors also call Harris Lyons' "paramour," an allegation Lyons and Harris firmly deny.

Some of Harris' neighbors thought Lyons was her fiance. Lyons' former administrative assistant, Lynda Shorter, said Lyons often asked her to cancel all of his appointments so he could disappear with Harris. Harris' former administrative assistant, Renee Fagans, called it "a torrid love affair," in which Lyons promised to marry Harris once he divorced "his embarrassing alcoholic wife" of 25 years.

Fagans also told of a romantic getaway to the Waldorf Astoria in New York, where Lyons bought Harris a full-length mink coat and hat. And, Fagans told investigators, Harris once requested marijuana, saying she and Lyons liked to smoke together in the bathtub.

Former employees have made another allegation. They say Lyons and Harris diverted rebate money paid by hotels to the NBC for booking large blocks of rooms during convention meetings.

In May 1996, Harris bought a large brick house in an upscale subdivision south of Nashville. She paid $340,000, with a cash payment of $102,000 -- which is nearly as much as Lyons paid to her in the three months before the closing, records show.

She had other assistance. A Jan. 23, 1996, resolution guaranteed that the National Baptist Convention would co-sign a home loan of up to $300,000 for Harris.

Two signatures on the resolution, those of the convention's chairman and general secretary, were forged, records show. The third signature, that of Henry J. Lyons, was not.

Late last year, Harris put the house on the market for $429,000, or $89,000 more than she paid.


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