|A Ministry Questioned: more coverage from the pages of the St. Petersburg Times.|
New Samaritan Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., sent a $500 check to help survivors of genocide in Rwanda.
These three checks, and hundreds more from Baptist churches across the country, were deposited into a secret St. Petersburg bank account controlled by the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., newly released banking records show.
From this account, state and federal prosecutors allege, Lyons financed a lavish lifestyle for himself and his closest associates.
The church checks conflict with Lyons' assertion that he has "never taken a dime" from churches or the convention.
In a December news conference, Lyons said it was the "fees and gifts" he received from lucrative corporate deals that allowed him to buy such "admitted luxuries" as his $135,000 Mercedes-Benz, a $700,000 waterfront home, a Lake Tahoe time share, and a $2,000 money clip.
"But please," he said then, "understand that I have never -- even up to this day -- I have never reached into the offering plate and taken money that parishioners gave to this church Sunday after Sunday -- not to this church, not to the convention, and not to any church. I have never taken a dime of money from any church or the convention."
Lyons deposited millions of dollars from corporate deals into his secret bank account. But the banking records also show at least $867,000 in other deposits from churches, individuals or NBC operations.
"He is using the people's money for his own purposes," said an angry E.A. Gray, the 87-year-old deacon at First Baptist Church who signed the $1,000 check meant to help burned churches.
Gray, who began attending First Baptist in 1935, recalled that church members passed the collection plate after learning NBC was gathering donations for burned churches.
"We felt the need for helping. We sent that money in good faith," Gray said.
In a written response Sunday to the St. Petersburg Times, Lyons attorney Grady Irvin said any inference that Lyons diverted church contributions for his own use "is nothing short of irresponsible, intentionally misleading, and wrought with inflammatory innuendo and assumptions."
In October 1994, after he was elected NBC president, Lyons opened an account at the United Bank and Trust Co. in St. Petersburg. He called it the "National Baptist Convention USA Inc. Baptist Builder Fund.
He provided no corporate resolution authorizing the account. Nor did he notify the convention's board of directors. Nor did he tell the convention's outside auditors of its existence.
He alone was authorized to access the account.
Lyons deposited nearly $5-million into the Baptist Builder Fund between October 1994 and July 1997, the month his wife torched the $700,000 waterfront home and touched off investigations.
In the resulting state and federal criminal cases against Lyons, prosecutors allege that much of that $5-million was stolen from corporations trying to market products to NBC members. In fact, it is the corporations, not the NBC or its churches, that they named as the victims.
Not that prosecutors don't view the NBC as a victim. In building their cases, however, they were mindful of an NBC resolution -- orchestrated last fall by Lyons -- in which the NBC board declared there was no "misappropriation" by Lyons.
But the newly released banking records show that substantial amounts of church and convention money flowed into the Baptist Builder Fund.
This includes at least $122,000 in rebate checks from hotels and cities that hosted NBC meetings.
It includes an additional $550,000 in deposits from several convention accounts. Large deposits came from the NBC's Unified Program account, which collects monthly tithes from hundreds of NBC churches. Other deposits came from "Armies of God" accounts, which collected donations from hundreds of Baptists to pay off the mortgage on the convention's World Center.
And it includes about $195,000 in some 200 checks from churches, individuals and state branches.
Told Sunday that their checks was placed in Lyons' Baptist Builder Fund, leaders at a handful of the churches reacted with surprise. A few were uninterested. Others, confused by the news, asked whether the checks had already been cashed, or whether the money could be returned.
"Oh, my Lord," said Cedric Jones, a deacon at First Baptist Church-West, in Charlotte, N.C., whose 700-member church had sent $1,000. Members intended it to help pay the mortgage on the World Center.
"The church didn't know anything about it going into that fund," said Jones. "I'm not supportive of anybody misplacing money and buying finger rings and all that."
Walter Brown Sr., a Baptist minister in Evansville, Ind., and his wife, Johnnie Ruth Brown, donated $1,000 to the convention in April 1997.
The Rev. Brown supported Lyons' presidency, but he expressed concern when told his $1,000 donation had been deposited into the Baptist Builder Fund, an account he had never heard of until it was disclosed last year in media accounts.
"I wrote the check to help for the World Center and general causes," he said. "I'm not bothered now, but if it's proven that the money went into that fund, it would be time for us to take a step."
In June 1995, the Rev. Floyd Brown of Sioux City, Iowa, attended a meeting of Iowa Baptists and heard Lyons pitch a new fund-raising program to support the daily operating expenses of the convention.
Brown recalled how Lyons asked those at the meeting to become "Standard Bearers" for the convention by making donations. Those who gave the most would get to wear gold Standard Bearer pins. Brown wrote a personal check for $600, made out to "Standard Bearers," and got his gold pin.
Brown's was one of several Standard Bearer checks deposited into the Baptist Builder Fund.
"Isn't that pitiful," Brown's wife, Vicki, said Sunday when told where their money ended up.
Asked if she intended their money to support luxury items, Mrs. Brown replied: "No, Lord. Oh, no. . . . We thought we were helping the convention."
According to prosecutors, Lyons diverted most of the money in the Baptist Builder Fund to himself, his family, or women linked to him romantically. But the bank records show he also spent money on convention expenses, such as donations to predominantly black colleges.
In his written response to the Times, Irvin suggested that church money deposited into the Baptist Builder Fund was spent for legitimate expenses.
"For example, a contribution intended for Oklahoma City bombing victims may have been deposited into the Baptist Builder Fund and then dispensed from that fund by issuing a check made payable to a Midwest pastor . . . that was accepting donations."
Irvin provided no supporting records.
On Jan. 21, 1996, two churches -- on opposite ends of the country -- were writing out checks to the National Baptist Convention. One check came from the east coast of Florida. The other from California
Both checks were deposited into the Baptist Builder Fund, a fact that on Sunday prompted concern from one church, little interest from the other.
Beth Eden Baptist in Oakland, Calif., placed a simple note on its Jan. 21, 1996, check for $550: "Donation." Church secretary Mary Wesley signed it. "I believe in supporting ministers," she said, "but I don't believe in supporting luxury items."
Will Beth Eden continue contributing to the NBC? Willie Tate, the deacon chairman, isn't sure.
"If it's being used for things other than paying off the indebtedness of the world headquarters or missions or special projects, then I think we will judge him harshly," Tate said. "We didn't send it for a private account."
Some 3,000 miles away, on the same day, a Delray Beach church sent $500. The check from St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church was for "Elijah's Army," a program to pay off debt on the convention's headquarters.
On Sunday, the Rev. J.W.H. Thomas Jr., who calls Lyons "one of my best friends on Earth," said he was not troubled to learn the money went to the Baptist Builder Fund.
"I was aware that the funds were rerouted different ways sometimes," Thomas said. "He had to put money where it would it do the most good."
Thomas doubts the $500 bought luxuries.
Banking records show this: A few days after the Delray Beach and
Oakland churches made out their checks, a different check was
drawn from the Baptist Builder Fund. Lyons signed a $34,500 down
payment on the $700,000 Tierra Verde house.