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"This is the house for me," Bernice Edwards told Henry Lyons of this $700,000 Tierra Verde house. Lyons told a broker his monthly income was $23,892 when he applied for the mortgage, according to prosecutor files. [Times file photo]

Scenes from a scandal

By DAVID BARSTOW and MONICA DAVEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 30, 1998


The deal was done in a hotel room at the Don Cesar Beach Resort & Spa.

Goldie Huebner, a mortgage broker, faced Henry J. Lyons, prospective home buyer.

Some key players in the Lyons case
Deborah Lyons
Bernice Edwards
Brenda Harris
Bernie McCabe
Huebner looked at the loan application in front of her.

She asked Lyons his income.

Lyons replied: $23,892 -- per month.

Huebner said she would need to see his tax returns to verify his income.

Not possible, Lyons said. The tax returns would not show $23,892 per month, or anything even close to that, he explained. In fact, he said, he had nothing at all to back up that figure.

This was a problem. No way would Lyons qualify to buy a $700,000 home on Tierra Verde without proof of income. No matter that he claimed a net worth of $1.5-million. Or that he was president of the National Baptist Convention USA.

A ministry questioned: more stories from the Times
Huebner offered a solution: Apply for a no-income verification loan. The interest rate would be higher, the down payment would be huge, but he could get the house.

Lyons agreed. He had a special request, though: He did not want any of the documents associated with the transaction sent to his home, the home he shared with his wife.

With Lyons that day was Bernice Edwards, a convention employee. Edwards loved the Don Cesar -- Room 400 was her favorite -- and she almost always stayed there when she was in town. Weeks earlier, she and Lyons had gone house hunting together. That's when they first saw the gorgeous waterfront house on Tierra Verde.

"This is the house for me," Edwards told Lyons.

These new details about how one of America's foremost religious leaders came to own a lavish home with a convicted embezzler who often posed as his wife were contained in more than 400 pages of records made public Wednesday.

The records were released by Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, who has charged Lyons and Edwards with racketeering. McCabe's office began investigating Lyons after his wife set fire to the Tierra Verde house in July 1997.

McCabe is required by law to turn over all investigative reports to defense attorneys for Lyons and Edwards. Those reports contain scenes from a scandal -- scenes of deception and adultery and payoffs, scenes of extortion and drug use, scenes of disillusionment from those who trusted Henry Lyons.

Through his attorneys, Lyons declined to comment Wednesday. "We will deal with these matters in court," attorney Grady Irvin said.

Losing the ADL's trust

The mood was somber for the crowd of dignitaries flying home on an Air Force jet from the funeral of slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. For Howard Berkowitz, there was one bright moment. He happened to meet Henry J. Lyons, a fellow honored guest on the government plane

Berkowitz, chair of the Anti-Defamation League's national executive committee, was impressed with Lyons. So, a year later, Berkowitz's group would call on Lyons to distribute the Jewish group's donations to black churches in the South.

At the 1996 ceremony to present Lyons with a check for more than $200,000, Berkowitz proudly introduced his new friend to the assembled crowd:

"I found Rev. Lyons, referred to by the Wall Street Journal as a "Classy Cleric,' to be a man of courage, a man of conscience and a man of independent thought who works around the clock for the best interests of his people and of all Americans.

"As we in the ADL carefully deliberated how best to distribute the largest amount from our "Rebuild the Churches' fund, it was a unanimous decision to ask Rev. Lyons to serve as the conduit to donate these funds to the churches victimized by arson which we believe to be bias-motivated."

Berkowitz read from Psalm 94: Who will rise up for me against the evildoers? Who will stand up for me against the wrongdoers or the workers of iniquity? Then he handed Lyons the check -- a giant-sized check so the publicity cameras could capture the hand-off.

Lyons was effusive with thanks. The need was giant, Lyons told the assembled group. Lyons said he already had called a "teleconference" with the convention's board of directors in which they "immediately determined where these funds should go."

Last year, prosecutors interviewed pastors at the tiny Alabama churches that were supposed to receive the cash. Some churches got nothing. Some churches got $10,000, less than half of what the ADL believed they had received. Two pastors told investigators they -- and not their churches -- received personal checks for $3,000 from Lyons -- special bonuses for coming with him to the New York check ceremony. (The ADL already had paid expenses for the pastors' travel.)

These days, ADL officials have less to say about Lyons, who is charged with grand theft in connection with the money. Last fall, Lyons reimbursed the ADL for the missing thousands.

But ADL director Abraham Foxman refuses to meet with Lyons' lawyer, the newly released prosecution documents show. Foxman will not even speak with him.

Making up members

Lynda Shorter and her family were prominent, longtime members of Lyons' St. Petersburg church, Bethel Metropolitan Baptist

Shorter's grandfather had been a Baptist minister. Her mother was a high school principal, her father a City Council member.

In the summer of 1995, after bumping into Deborah Lyons at the supermarket, Lynda Shorter accepted a job at the church. Henry Lyons made her his administrative assistant, which gave her an up-close view of his activities as convention president. Deeply religious, Shorter felt blessed to work for a man so important and powerful, a man she had admired from the pews for so many years.

But over the next year of her life, Shorter came to lose all respect for Lyons.

Lyons, for example, entered lucrative marketing deals with major corporations in which he offered access to his membership in exchange for six-figure payments. The deals were based on Lyons' pledge that he could provide a mailing list of the 8.5-million Baptists he claimed to represent.

Shorter knew there was no such list. When one company asked Lyons for a breakdown of convention members and churches in each state, Lyons simply made up figures. For instance, he would say, "Arizona. Let's say 500 churches and 10,000 members," Shorter said.

He chuckled as he faked number after number, she told investigators.

Twice a year, the convention held major meetings of its members and board of directors. Often the meetings were dominated by bitter political feuding among rival camps of ministers. But another important function of the meetings was fund raising, and Lyons raised anywhere from $300,000 to $700,000 during these meetings.

Then he would retire to a hotel room with Shorter and the convention treasurer to divvy up the money, she said. The money was supposed to pay meeting bills and other convention expenses.

But Lyons also took care of his supporters within the convention, Shorter said. He would rattle off a list of ministers and board members he wanted to be paid. Typically, the amounts ranged from $3,000 to $4,000, said Shorter, who prepared the checks. One minister got $75,000, she recalled.

More disturbing, she said, was what Lyons did with money that was provided as rebates from the hotels hosting convention members. To get the business, hotels pay the NBC a percentage for each convention member who stays in the hotel. If, for example, the convention member paid $100 a night, the NBC might get a $10 rebate. With thousands of Baptists attending these meetings, the hotel rebates generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in income for the convention.

But according to Shorter and other convention officials, much of the rebate money ended up in the pockets of Lyons and Brenda Harris, who schedules meetings for the convention. Lyons covered up the missing money by "substantially" understating the amount of the rebates in convention financial reports, Shorter told investigators.

How does she know this? Because she deposited many of the rebate checks and typed many of the financial reports, she said.

Allegations of drug use

Renee Fagans had grown close to Brenda Harris. Fagans worked for Harris in San Diego. They shared secrets and offices. One secret, said Fagans, was that Harris and Lyons were carrying on an affair

When Harris moved east to become an executive with the National Baptist Convention, Fagans followed to become Harris' assistant in the convention's Nashville headquarters.

Harris asked Fagans to bring something special from California -- high-grade marijuana, Fagans told investigators.

Fagans recalled Harris' exact words: "Your president and I like to sit in the bathtub and smoke weed."

Fagans said she brought a small bag of marijuana to Harris' Nashville home.

Lyons' attorneys declined to comment on the allegation. In the past, attorneys for Harris have discounted Fagans as a disgruntled employee. They could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.

According to Fagans, Harris told her that she and Lyons intended to marry as soon as "he can get rid of his embarrassing alcoholic wife."

They often disappeared for romantic get-aways, Fagans said. In December 1995, she said, they stayed together at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City. When Harris returned, she showed up in a new full-length mink coat and hat.

Lyons paid for them with cash, Harris told Fagans. Harris wore the coat constantly, Fagans told investigators.

Edwards' benefactor

Max Lehninger wanted to take Bernice Edwards under his wing

He was a white, well-to-do retiree from Milwaukee. She was black, a mother of three struggling to pay her bills on the other side of town. Or so Lehninger thought.

It started with little things. He drove her kids to school. He gave them cash for lunch. He helped out when her basement flooded. He opened his wallet to her -- noting the "loans" on handwritten notes.

Then the numbers started growing, Lehninger, now 90, told investigators. He paid for her airline tickets with his credit card. He gave her $5,000, then $10,000 in cash.

Then Lehninger grew concerned.

When his wife, Grayce, died in 1996, Edwards "borrowed" her luggage. She also borrowed Grayce's $9,000 mink coat. Neither item has ever been returned, he said. Edwards used his American Express number to buy $9,000 in clothes by mail order, he said, before he discovered it.

When Edwards invited three representatives of a funeral home company to town for a crucial business meeting, Lehninger let them use his club, the Milwaukee Athletic Club. Lehninger says he ended up paying the bill.

When a convention representative called Lehninger and asked him to guarantee a $12-million letter of credit, Lehninger drew the line. Now he wants his money back from Edwards, he said. He has been shocked to learn of the life she had been leading in Florida even as he paid her Milwaukee heating bills.

"She needs help!" Lehninger told investigators.

In Florida, Joseph Capello met Edwards after his import company held an auction at the Don Cesar. Edwards wanted a 20-carat princess cut diamond. Price: $125,000.

Edwards told Capello she was wealthy, the owner of "numerous cemeteries and radio stations," a connoisseur of fine lithographs and jewelry and furnishings. She said her name was "Dr. Bree Jones." She said her husband was a "very important man:" Henry J. Lyons.

As they talked about the diamond, Edwards decided she wanted it reset. The huge stone was set in a woman's ring -- and Edwards wanted it in "a man's setting for Dr. Lyons."

"She wanted the setting to be a dignified and sedate setting," Capello recalled.

A 20-carat diamond, he told her, will always be showy. Edwards changed her mind.

She kept the woman's ring. She had it sized for her finger.


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