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Report in Lyons case alleges forgeries


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 1, 1998

The lead investigator in the state prosecution of Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons has concluded that the St. Petersburg preacher committed forgery on three financial documents that enriched him or his friends, records show.

Each of the documents carried the signature of the Rev. Roscoe D. Cooper Jr., general secretary of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc.

"The evidence is that Henry Lyons forged all three of these signatures," David Kurash, an investigator for Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, wrote in a report made public this week.

Each of the forged papers was intended to secure financing from lending institutions. One document helped Lyons, president of the convention, buy a $700,000 home. Another helped him secure a $300,000 bank loan. The third pledged $300,000 to an employee prosecutors called Lyons' "paramour."

In the report, Kurash did not explain how he arrived at his conclusion, but it is the first time authorities have publicly accused Lyons himself of forgery. A spokeswoman for Lyons declined comment Thursday evening.

Pinellas prosecutors have not formally charged Lyons with forgery. Instead, they charged Lyons with the more serious crimes of racketeering and grand theft.

But forgery continues to be a focus of a federal grand jury which began investigating Lyons last year. On Thursday, the jurors heard testimony from three witnesses, including the lead FBI agent in the case.

Martin Bakke, a Clearwater consultant who worked with Lyons on a housing project for the elderly, also appeared before the grand jury for an hour. The jurors' main concern, Bakke said, was a letter used to seek financing for the housing project.

The letter, in which the National Baptist Convention purportedly pledged $750,000 in credit toward the project, included another forgery of Cooper's signature. This forgery obviously was written by a different person than the other forgeries -- the ones Kurash says Lyons wrote.

"I don't know why I was called over here," Bakke said as he emerged from the grand jury room. He could not answer the jurors' central question: Who signed the letter?

"The whole thing," Bakke said, "was on that letter." Bakke, who is not a member of the convention, said he didn't sign it. He assumed Cooper did.

"I learned (that it was fake) in the newspaper like everybody else."

Bakke said he first saw the letter in 1997, when it came across his fax machine. The letter was written on Lyons' letterhead. One of Lyons' secretaries typed it.

Did he know it was from Lyons? "You use common sense, okay," Bakke said.

"You're working for the Pope. The Pope says to you: My guy Friday is going to have the letter. You don't question the Pope. If he tells you something, that's gospel."

Two handwriting experts hired by the St. Petersburg Times concluded that Lyons' secretary Berlena Hudson probably signed the letter. She has denied wrongdoing.

Now, a fifth Cooper forgery has emerged.

In July 1996, Lyons opened an account at the Republic Bank in St. Petersburg that was titled "National Baptist Convention Church Burnings."

Lyons was the only authorized signatory on the account. A convention resolution authorizing the account carried Cooper's signature.

"This signature is clearly forged, based upon my review of Cooper's genuine signature on other documents," Kurash wrote in his report.

The NBC church burning account was opened a few months before Lyons accepted $225,000 from the Anti-Defamation League to rebuild African-American churches destroyed by arsonists.

None of the ADL money was deposited into Lyons' special church burning account. Bank records show that the balance in the account never exceeded $1,600. The final deposit into the NBC church burning account -- for $500 -- was made the day before Lyons deposited the $225,000 from the ADL into a secret account he maintained at the United Bank in St. Petersburg.

Using bank records, Kurash traced how Lyons spent the ADL money: "Lyons diverted at least $110,000 of the ADL money to his own bank account, to himself, to his wife, his girlfriend, his daughter, and to pay his personal credit card bill," Kurash wrote.

Kurash said $39,000 went to three burned churches and their pastors. "All of the rest of the ADL funds were diverted to other uses totally unrelated to the "burned churches.' "

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