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Judge to Lyons: 'I'm gonna throw your butt in jail'


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 24, 1998

The judge pulled off his glasses and shot a hard stare at the Rev. Henry J. Lyons.

Then came the judge's lecture, stern and blunt, to the Baptist leader. He sounded like an exasperated parent.

"I'm gonna throw your butt in jail," U.S. Magistrate Thomas B. McCoun III warned Lyons, if Lyons continues to ignore the court's rules.

"Let me say to you that I want to put this in real, plain terms. . . . You need to read the order, understand what it says and follow it."

In just three weeks since he was charged with money laundering, bank fraud and wire fraud, Lyons has violated travel conditions the judge set when he allowed Lyons to remain free until trial. Last week, Lyons flew out of town without permission from the judge.

A Ministry Questioned: more coverage from the pages of the St. Petersburg Times.
"If you violate the court's order again, you are going to revisit the Marshal's office," McCoun told Lyons Thursday during a hearing in federal court. "Do you understand that?"

Lyons sat forward in his chair, nodding. "Yes sir," he said quietly. "Yes sir."

McCoun wasn't done.

"I know you don't want to go to jail. You had better read the order again, and you had better follow it."

Outside of court, Lyons' attorney Grady Irvin described the travel violation as "an honest mistake."

On July 13, Lyons flew to Nashville to attend an "emergency session" with other leaders of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. to reopen a bank account, Irvin said. Lyons returned home the same day. "This whole thing was blown out of proportion," Irvin said.

When NBC president Lyons, NBC employee Brenda Harris and former employee Bernice Edwards were indicted July 2, the NBC found itself in a financial crisis. Federal authorities froze nearly 20 bank accounts they say were used to carry out the financial conspiracy. The convention's main operating account, called the "Unified Program" fund, was among the frozen accounts.

Convention employees could not cash their paychecks, Irvin said. The convention couldn't pay its bills.

NBC leaders have criticized the authorities for freezing the fund, saying it is where hundreds of Baptists send their monthly tithes. But records released in connection to state racketeering charges against Lyons also reveal that nearly $40,000 in Unified Program funds were transferred to the Baptist Builder Fund, the secret bank account federal authorities consider "the primary account" Lyons used to "funnel fraudulent money."

On July 10, prosecutors agreed to reopen the Unified Program account if Lyons would remove his name as a signatory on it.

Though the account is located at Citizens First Bank in Ocala, Irvin said, Lyons needed to travel to the convention's world headquarters in Nashville for the emergency meeting to execute "certain documents which accomplished the removal of his name from the account."

Irvin said he tried to contact prosecutors to notify them of the need for the trip. But the court employee assigned to handle Lyons' case learned of the trip after Lyons already was gone.

"Rev. Lyons misunderstood," Irvin said.

On Thursday, Lyons offered the judge his travel plans through December. They include more than 20 trips around the country for pastors' conferences, Baptist conventions and meetings of Lyons' pro-family group, Trusted Partners.

First on the list was a revival in Alachua County -- later Thursday evening. Today, he plans to leave for Salt Lake City to install a pastor.

McCoun said he would continue to allow Lyons' trips, but demanded details -- phone numbers, hotel reservations, plane flights -- from now on. Any time Lyons leaves the federal judicial district for Central Florida, which spans from Jacksonville to Fort Myers, he must have permission from the court, McCoun said. First.

The rules are "no more imposing than your wife wanting to know where you are," McCoun said. "We've got these orders in place and we expect you to follow it."

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