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Edwards' spending flouted rules, records state


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 23, 1998

Bernice Edwards wrote to her probation officer with the warmth of a grateful protege.

"Dear Kristi," Edwards began a greeting card to U.S. Probation Officer Kristi A. Bakken, the official assigned to monitor Edwards after she was convicted of embezzling. "Things are sometimes very painful and trying to restructure my life is hard," Edwards confided.

For three years, Bakken met with Edwards each month to ensure that the Milwaukee woman was following strict financial rules a judge had demanded. No new bank accounts. No credit cards. No purchases of more than $500 without Bakken's okay.

A Ministry Questioned: more coverage from the pages of the St. Petersburg Times.
The way Bakken saw it, Edwards was a success. She reported no new accounts, not a single luxury purchase. She worked hard in her $40,000-a-year job for the Rev. Henry J. Lyons and the National Baptist Convention USA.

Edwards' probation ended right on time in 1997. "Thank you much for the words of wisdom you've given to me as I travel this road to recovery," Edwards wrote in the greeting card to Bakken. "Lessons are very painful. Thank you. Bernice."

In truth, Bakken knew little about the roads Edwards was traveling.

Bakken knew nothing of Edwards' joint acquisition during the probation period of a $700,000 Tierra Verde house, a Lake Tahoe time share condominium and a Rolls-Royce, according to about 1,900 pages of records released Monday in Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe's racketeering case against Edwards and Lyons.

Nor did Bakken know about a secret Milwaukee bank account Edwards controlled that held more than $1-million, or several other bank accounts Edwards shared with Lyons.

Nor did Bakken know about Edwards' resort hotel sprees and shopping binges. Edwards thought nothing of spending $180 for a scarf, or $210 for a belt, or $665 for a bag, or $875 for a dress, or $1,325 for a pinstripe jacket, the records show.

How did Edwards, month after month, fool an entire federal probation bureaucracy trained to spot abuses?

The newly released records offer the first clues to this mystery: Edwards worked hard at it. She paid for nearly everything with cash or cashier's checks. She shipped her luxury purchases to far-away Florida. She used phony Social Security numbers, and endless combinations of aliases. One salesman said he knew her as Bernice Jones, B. Edwards, Sheila Edwards, Sheila Jones, B. Lewis, and Sheila Lewis Edwards.

She told lies to Bakken, even as she seemed to be sharing a special confidence.

A free-spending image of haughty wealth

Each month, Edwards was required to report to her probation officer any purchases she made over $500. She signed a form attesting that she had followed all the probation rules. False statements, the form warned, could mean prison

In report after report in 1996, Edwards stated she had not bought a single item for more than $500.

But at Zita, an upscale woman's clothing shop in Whitefish Bay, Wis., Edwards was spending tens of thousands of dollars that year.

Take April 1996. On the 1st, she spent $5,270, including $725 for an Escada print blouse, and $1,250 for an Escada jacket. She dropped $402 on the 2nd, then $264 on the 5th, and $2,698 on the 6th (including $830 on Escada "accessories"). On the 9th, she spent $612, then, 45 minutes later, $235 (a DKNY jacket, a DKNY pleated skirt and an Ellen Tracy scarf -- all on sale). She was back on the 10th for more Escada goodies ($332 from the sport collection line).

Constance K. Pittz was her favored sales person at Zita. In an interview with federal authorities in Milwaukee, Pittz said Edwards -- whom she knew as Brea Jones, or simply "B" -- bought everything from casual lounging clothes to "outrageous evening pieces."

Edwards was a sales clerk's dream come true. With Pittz in tow, she would zip around the boutique, picking out this and that, while another clerk would be left to total up the sales, often in the thousands of dollars, the records show.

She sought to project an image of haughty wealth. She spoke of her homes in Florida and Lake Tahoe. She special-ordered clothes. Once, Pittz politely declined to allow Edwards to take home a batch of her favorite Escada clothes without full payment. A month later, Edwards returned to the store with a box. Inside was $20,000 worth of Escada clothes, none bought at Zita. To Pittz, the message was clear: Keep me happy or I'll shop elsewhere.

Pittz worked hard to keep Edwards happy. Once, Pittz told federal authorities, Edwards asked her to come in on a Saturday, her day off. Pittz agreed. When Edwards showed up, an hour and half late, she had no cash. Edwards asked Pittz to go to the bank with her to get a cashier's check. No problem.

Never once did Edwards pay with a personal check, or her own credit card. Sometimes she paid with a friend's American Express card, but mostly she paid with cash or cashier's checks drawn from the Guaranty Bank in Milwaukee, where she controlled a secret account under the name JH Associates.

It was the same with merchants all over Milwaukee.

At Powers Manufacturing Jewelers, where Edwards frequently ordered custom-made jewelry, she always paid with cash or certified checks. Dick Powers, the owner, told federal authorities that Edwards was "into "big jewelry,' " things like diamond-encrusted bracelets and especially Rolex watches. She spent $28,000 at his place on March 18, 1996. And $11,000 on April 20. And $18,450 on May 9. And $37,500 a week later. At least once, Powers recalled, Edwards came in with Lyons. They picked out cuff links, a tie tack, three men's Rolex watches and one ladies watch.

At Hixons, another upscale woman's clothing store in Mequon, Wis., Edwards bought $2,075 worth of clothing with a JH Associates check. The sales clerk told FBI agents that Edwards signed the check as Josephine Hicks. Her explanation to the clerk: Josephine Hicks was her "business name." (In fact, Josephine Hicks is a diner owner in Milwaukee who opened the JH Associates account at the request of her friend, Bernice Edwards.)

When Edwards wasn't shopping in Milwaukee, she often could be found at the Don CeSar Beach Resort & Spa in St. Pete Beach. Among the records released by McCabe's office: itemized bills from 22 visits Edwards made to the Don CeSar in 1996.

During her 59 days at the luxury resort, Edwards truly lived large, the bills show. She spent thousands on special floral arrangements, and hundreds more in the spa, where guests are pampered with rubdowns and facials. Once she spent $662 at Debazan, the hotel gift shop. Another time $605. Another time $227. She didn't skip on dining, either, with plenty of $150-plus meal bills at the hotel's Maritana Grille.

None of this lavish spending is reflected anywhere on her probation reports to Bakken. In fact, in all of 1996, Edwards reported only one expense above $500: On her April 1996 report, she said she paid about $7,000 in overdue federal taxes.

What probation officer didn't discover

In the records, Pinellas-Pasco state attorney's investigator David Kurash described Edwards' spending behavior during her probation period as constituting "obvious federal violations.

Federal authorities in Milwaukee and Tampa have announced they are investigating Edwards and Lyons. Bill Jung, Bernice Edwards' attorney, declined to comment Monday.

The rules for Edwards' probation were simple. She was allowed one old-fashioned savings account, which usually held less than $2,000. Edwards could keep some cash at home for spending. She had to report monthly income and expenses.

Bakken said she tried to check up on Edwards by conducting "periodic credit reports" on Edwards' Social Security number. Trouble was, Bakken was unaware Edwards sometimes used others' Social Security numbers, Bakken said.

Edwards failed to mention other key items that might have tipped off officials to Edwards' other life, Bakken said. Her Florida address. Her financial ties to Josephine Hicks and Lyons.

Whenever Edwards left Milwaukee, she needed permission from Bakken. She often requested business trips to Florida. One trip took Edwards to Lake Tahoe, according to her official travel request to the probation office.

The Oct. 25-28, 1995, Nevada trip would allow Edwards to attend a meeting to plan for Trusted Partners, an organization Lyons founded to encourage men to be faithful to their families and wives. On the travel request, Edwards said the purpose was "work."

On Edwards' birthday, Oct. 27, 1995, Edwards and Lyons bought a $22,500 time-share unit in Lake Tahoe, property records show.

Bakken, the probation officer, never heard about that.

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