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Bernice Edwards pleads innocent


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 23, 1998

TAMPA -- Bernice Edwards pleaded innocent on Wednesday to money laundering, bank fraud and tax evasion, but it was uncertain whether she will be able to afford a private defense attorney to fight the federal charges she faces with Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons.

A Ministry Questioned: more coverage from the pages of the St. Petersburg Times.
Edwards, the woman who once spent thousands of dollars on designer dresses, multicarat jewels and facials at a resort spa, seems to be out of money.

A week ago, a hearing for Edwards was postponed because she had yet to reach a contract deal with the lawyers with whom she has consulted for months. On Wednesday, Edwards brought to court a new attorney -- prominent civil rights lawyer Warren Hope Dawson. But Edwards hasn't exactly hired Dawson yet either.

"Resources that would normally be fully available to her are not now," Dawson told the judge, adding that he expects Edwards to be able to sort out her finances and formally hire a lawyer within the next 10 days. Edwards is not trying to slow down the government's case against her, said Dawson, but to "genuinely grapple with circumstances."

Among Edwards' recent circumstances: Federal authorities have seized the Land Rover from her Milwaukee driveway and dozens of pieces of her jewelry from her house and nearby pawnshops. They have frozen bank accounts Edwards shared with Lyons, who was her boss at the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc. The authorities have placed legal claims on a $700,000 Tierra Verde house Edwards co-owns with Lyons, as well as on her modest Milwaukee home. And their search for assets isn't over.

It's all part of a 61-count federal indictment a federal grand jury returned July 2 against Edwards, Lyons and another convention employee, Brenda Harris. The three are accused of using the Baptist group as a vehicle to defraud major corporations with phony marketing schemes, to launder money through secret bank accounts and to secure loans with forged documents.

Harris and Lyons pleaded innocent weeks ago. Edwards, a convicted embezzler who has a history of putting off creditors and law enforcement officials, got her hearing delayed until Wednesday.

The arraignment was scheduled for noon. One minute before that, Edwards arrived at the federal courthouse in Tampa, where she has grown accustomed to being greeted by a dozen reporters and photographers.

She smiled. Dawson offered his arm.

Dawson, a 31-year veteran in Tampa's legal community, may be best known for his longtime role as lead counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in Hillsborough's desegregation battle. In 1991, Dawson led the drive to include African-Americans in the all-white Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla. He has made similar efforts to allow blacks admission into all-white clubs and onto corporate boards.

The 58-year-old Howard University law school graduate also has campaigned for the Legislature, four times making it to run-off elections, but never winning. A past president of the National Bar Association and current trustee for Hillsborough Community College, Dawson has counseled the city of Tampa and its housing authority.

Though he is better known for civil work, Dawson said he is no stranger to criminal cases. He declined to explain exactly how he came to meet Edwards. "Someone who knew of my presence in the community obviously mentioned my name to her."

Edwards also faces racketeering charges in state court, where she is represented by Tampa attorneys Bill Jung and Tony Black. Until Wednesday, Edwards had appeared likely to hire Jung and Black to handle the federal case as well. The lawyers did not appear in court and declined to comment.

U.S. Magistrate Elizabeth A. Jenkins generally requires defendants to hire an attorney promptly or request a public defender to avoid slowing down a case, she said during the hearing.

But Edwards, Dawson said, "is going to need a little more time." She is well on her way to finalizing a deal, Dawson said, given her "rather full plate" of criminal charges in state and federal court.

Jenkins allowed Edwards until Aug. 3 to hire an attorney but left Edwards with a caution: This couldn't be put off.
-- Times staff writer Larry Dougherty contributed to this report.

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