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Lawyer expresses relief after leaving Lyons case


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 7, 1998

ST. PETERSBURG -- Lawyer Anthony S. Battaglia has quit the defense team of Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons, saying he found it too draining and cumbersome to coordinate legal work with Lyons' other lawyers.

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"I feel like I just got 20 tons off my back," Battaglia said Wednesday, one day after Pinellas-Pasco Chief Circuit Judge Susan F. Schaeffer approved his request to withdraw from Lyons' defense.

Lyons, who faces state racketeering and grand theft charges, continues to be represented by attorneys F. Lee Bailey of West Palm Beach, Denis de Vlaming of Clearwater and Grady Irvin of Tampa.

"The basic problem is that I've been practicing law for 45 years," said Battaglia, 70. "... I have never been involved in a case where there have been multiple law firms involved."

With so many firms, Battaglia said, drafting even routine legal motions was a chore. Battaglia and his firm's associates would gather to produce a first draft, he said. The draft went out to the other attorneys for their suggestions. Then Battaglia's office produced a final draft for final approvals.

"Before it's all over, I've spent another whole day working on a simple motion," Battaglia said. "I'm used to getting things in, getting things done, getting them out."

Battaglia, who has chafed under this method of operation for months, said he was not critical of the process. "I just don't have the patience for it."

A spokeswoman for the Lyons defense team issued a press release Wednesday about Battaglia's withdrawal. There were no words of praise or thanks to Battaglia, whose St. Petersburg firm carried much of the legal load for Lyons.

"It is the policy of this office and Dr. Lyons' attorneys not to comment on strategic or now-pending legal matters involving Dr. Lyons in the current state case," the release said.

There were other signs of internal discord.

Irvin, 35, who recently finished a one-month suspension for violating Florida Bar rules, is required to be mentored by another lawyer for two years. Irvin had asked Battaglia to be his mentor.

Battaglia said he no longer will serve as Irvin's mentor, nor will he consider allowing Irvin to use space in his offices -- "unless he wants to pay rent."

Lyons, the president of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., has often complained about the strain of paying his legal expenses. Battaglia said his departure has nothing to do with money, nor does it reflect his view of Lyons, of whom he spoke with admiration.

The two men have gotten to know each other well. Battaglia estimated that he had met with Lyons in his law offices as many as 30 times.

"I really looked forward to meeting with him every time he came into this office," said Battaglia, who described Lyons as congenial, understanding, funny -- the most interesting person he has ever met.

On Sunday, two days before he had made his final decision to quit Lyons' defense, Battaglia was driving to church -- he is Catholic -- when he made an unplanned detour to Lyons' church.

Battaglia had never been to one of Lyons' services. He is not sure why he went Sunday. But as he participated in the service, Battaglia said, he came to realize what special gifts Lyons has as a preacher.

"Dr. Lyons is just an absolutely outstanding practitioner in his own right," Battaglia said.

Battaglia left open the possibility that he may rejoin Lyons' defense team should Lyons be indicted on federal charges. A federal grand jury is investigating Lyons for possible tax fraud and other crimes.

For now, Battaglia said he intends to spend more time with his wife, more time relaxing and enjoying life. Battaglia said he hasn't had a decent night of sleep since joining Lyons' defense team last July.

That changed the day he decided to quit, he said.

His plans for Wednesday afternoon: A round of golf at Bayou Club in Largo.

"I'm not the youngest guy on the block anymore," he said.

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